In May of 2017, a 26-year-old social-media marketer named Peter Galanko made an investment in Verge, a little-known cryptocurrency trading under the symbol XVG. At the time, the great cryptocurrency mania, which saw Bitcoin climb 25-fold by the end of the year – it would fall fall all the way back to a fifth of its December 2017 peak by the end of 2018 – had only just started to heat up. Verge was just one among thousands of nearly indistinguishable digital currencies that traded at a fraction of a penny. But soon after Galanko got in, Verge took off like a runaway balloon, corkscrewing up to half a cent by late August. Galanko, who’d taken to styling himself @XVGWhale on Twitter, had more than quadrupled his money. But now he had an idea for how he could do even better: He needed John McAfee.
The Rocky Mountains were dappled in autumn yellow as Galanko and his girlfriend set out on the two-day cross-country trip from Colorado to rural Tennessee. Their destination was the home of McAfee, the 72-year-old antivirus software multimillionaire who, after escaping from a police investigation into the violent death of his neighbor in Belize in 2012 and boasting in graphic detail about his adventures with the powerful drug bath salts, had transformed himself into a public figure “who many see as a well-respected cryptocurrency soothsayer,” as Slate magazine put it. In mid-July, McAfee had tweeted that Bitcoin, then trading at around $2,300, would be worth $500,000 by 2020, and that if it were not, “I will eat my dick on national television.” By the end of August, the price had more than doubled, and many took this as evidence of McAfee’s foresight. Galanko figured that a good word from McAfee about Verge — whose market would be easier to influence than Bitcoin’s vastly larger one — could send the value of the cryptocurrency dramatically higher.
McAfee had promised an hour of his time, according to a long video Galanko later posted about the encounter on YouTube, but appeared perplexed when the couple showed up at his door. “Who are you?” he asked with a baffled expression. “I didn’t invite anyone over today.” Galanko’s spirits sank, but not for long: a grin spread across McAfee’s weather-beaten face as he let on that he was just playing one of his trademark pranks. With a hearty handshake, he invited them inside.
At first Galanko felt anxious, intimidated by McAfee’s fame and force of personality as well as by the home’s contingent of armed security guards. But as they settled down to talk, Galanko was soon drawn in by McAfee’s skillful storytelling. The evening rolled by in whiskey and conversation. Galanko and his girlfriend wound up staying for a week. The men shot guns together, and Galanko tweeted snapshots of himself riding in the back of McAfee’s car and of McAfee cooking breakfast.
“It was an amazing opportunity … he’s a genius,” Galanko later gushed in the video. (He declined to talk to New York for this article.) The only thing missing was the thing he’d come for. When Galanko asked McAfee to publicly endorse Verge, he demurred, explaining that he was already committed to a rival coin. But a couple of months later he came around, tweeting on December 13 to his 700,000 followers that Verge “cannot lose.” McAfee’s praise was like a match to a rocket fuse. Verge’s price nearly doubled overnight, and by the end of ten days it was up 2,500 percent, making it one of the most successful cryptocurrencies of 2017. A single dollar invested at the beginning of the year was worth more than $10,000 by the end of it.