SIOUX CITY -- Cash is easy enough to get when you have a bank account -- ATMs have been spitting out $20 bills for decades. What if you have cash, but want cryptocurrency?
DigitalMint, a Chicago-based chain of Bitcoin ATMs and teller windows, opened a retail outlet in Sioux City in early October. A store in South Sioux City opened nearly a year ago.
Both the Sioux City and South Sioux City locations are inside of EZ Money Check Cashing establishments, at 2121 Hamilton Blvd. in Sioux City and 1512 Dakota Ave. Suite A in South Sioux City.
In all, there are some 17 DigitalMint locations in Iowa, all within EZ Money Check Cashing locations. Nebraska has nine.
Marc Grens, president and co-founder of DigitalMint, said the four-year-old company has roughly 170 locations in 19 states, with another 100 planned. DigitalMint locations are usually set up inside of existing establishments, somewhat like Western Union offices set up inside of stores. Clerks already working in those establishments are trained to be DigitalMint tellers.
Bitcoin, an online currency developed a decade ago, was designed as a payment system that could completely circumvent the traditional banking and governmental monetary systems. The currency is managed via a network of computers around the world, and the currency is accounted for via "blockchain," a digital ledger system.
Grens, who first got into Bitcoin in 2013, characterized DigitalMint customers as "under-banked" -- people who, for whatever reason, don't have a bank account and thus have trouble with some transactions. The FDIC estimated in 2015 that some 9 million American households were without a bank account.
So what does a customer use their Bitcoin for? Surely landlords and grocery stores won't accept it.
Grens said Bitcoin is useful primarily for online transactions, especially from overseas vendors. While many online stores don't accept Bitcoin, a few -- most notably, Overstock.com -- do take payment in Bitcoin. It's also popular as an investment.
Bitcoin became notorious earlier in the decade, when its value skyrocketed as the virtual currency became the de facto way to pay for drugs and other illicit products on the so-called "Dark Web." The negative press died down somewhat after the most notorious of these sites, the Silk Road, was shut down by the F.B.I. in 2013.
Grens called Bitcoin "just another financial tool that's being used for every reason," including unsavory purposes.
"Every single payment form, digitally, has been used to do nefarious things since the birth of the World Wide Web," Grens said. "And that has never stopped."
Prior to formal cryptocurrency sellers like DigitalMint, Bitcoins were often bought and sold person-to-person through localbitcoins.com, which Grens characterized as "kind of like the Craigslist for cyrpotcurrency and Bitcoin traders."
"People (were) meeting in coffee shops and lobbies of hotels and really obscure areas, anonymously, people were buying Bitcoin, paying in cash and walking away," Grens said. "So we realized this wasn't a safe and legitimate way to do it."
At present, DigitalMint doesn't accept debit or credit cards for Bitcoin transactions -- they deal in cash only, so card-using customers have to withdraw cash in a separate transaction. The reason for that, Grens said, lies in the vagaries of card transactions: a customer could pay with a stolen credit card, and there's no way to get the Bitcoin back if a bank comes to DigitalMint demanding a refund for the victim.
"Bitcoin is irreversible by nature. If I send Bitcoin from my wallet to your wallet, that transaction irrefutable on the open-source blockchain. You can go on the open-source ledger and you can read that the transaction happened, and I can't charge that back," he said. "Cash has the same exact property."
At its teller windows, DigitalMint was selling one Bitcoin at the rate of $7,285.91 as of Thursday morning (DigitalMint has a markup of between 8.5 and 12 percent, depending on the transaction amount). Bitcoins can be sold at a fraction of down to eight decimal points, with the minimum DigitalMint transaction, $1, buying 0.00013725 Bitcoin from DigitalMint.
For high-rollers, DigitalMint does impose a $20,000-per-day limit on Bitcoin transactions.