Man’s Quest to Recover Lost Bitcoin Wallet Leads to Debt, Not Wealth

Digging for digital gold: Man’s quest for lost Bitcoin leaves him with a hefty bill

March 15, 2023

By Joe Pan

A recent post circulating on Twitter about a man who accidentally threw away his computer filled with bitcoin has finally found it in the dump. But unfortunately, it turns out the wallet was actually filled with bitcoin cash, a hard fork of bitcoin worth a fraction of the price of actual bitcoin or 7,500 bitcoins – $150 million that he believed he had. The current value he recovered is 7,500 x $124 = $930k, still a significant amount of reward by any standard, but far short of what he had spent $2.5 million paying excavators, labor, and city permits to dig up the landfill. While he was relieved after finding the computer last month and had a professional data recovery company working on it for the last four weeks to recover his lost wallet, the cost alone was $400k.

The post did not name the man, but by the number of BTC that was supposed to be lost and recovered, and the fact that it was centered around a city-owned trash dump, it is very likely that it was James Howell, whose tale of misplaced millions was reported widely by major media outlets around the world.

In 2013, Howell threw away an old hard drive containing a digital wallet holding 7,500 bitcoins, which was worth around $4 million at the time. The hard drive was later discovered to be in a landfill in Newport, Wales. Howell attempted to recover the drive, but the city council denied his request to excavate the landfill, citing environmental and financial concerns.

Since then, Howell has been on a mission to retrieve his lost bitcoins, even considering a “dump masterplan” that involved a team of excavators and a drilling rig to extract the drive. However, after years of legal battles, he ultimately gave up on the plan and accepted his loss.

Howell’s story is not unique. Over the past decade, countless individuals have lost access to their Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies due to lost or damaged hardware wallets, forgotten passwords, or other mishaps. In fact, a recent study by blockchain data company Chainalysis estimates that nearly 4 million Bitcoin, worth over $140 billion at current prices, are lost or permanently inaccessible.

When it comes to the dilemma of how much to spend in the search for lost bitcoins, it ultimately depends on one’s risk tolerance and financial situation. Sabrina Eng, a student at Yale-NUS Singapore, takes a cautious approach, saying “I’m quite financially risk averse, so I’d probably spend 100k max if I had the income for it!”

Meanwhile, Amogh Agarwal, another student at Yale-NUS who believes in crypto and is on the fence about investing, takes a more calculated approach: “The extent to which I would go to recover the lost bitcoins would depend on how much debt I would have to take on and how much I would potentially recover. I probably wouldn’t go beyond spending 3-4 years’ worth of salary on an attempt to recover the lost bitcoin.”

While there have been some success stories, such as the recent recovery of Bitcoin worth over $100 million by the government of Ukraine, most lost Bitcoin remains lost forever. 

This story is just one example of the many lost Bitcoin wallets around the world. In the past decade, there have been numerous cases of people losing their Bitcoin wallets, either due to negligence or technical issues. As Bitcoin’s value skyrocketed, so did the number of lost wallets, leading to a growing interest in recovery services. It is likely that more and more people will be searching for ways to access their lost cryptocurrency.

To help track these lost Bitcoin wallets, we have compiled a list of the most well-known cases, including the amount of Bitcoin lost, the year it was first purchased, and any notable stories or anecdotes about the owners.

NameNumber of BitcoinsYear PurchasedValue (as of 02/23/2023)LocationNotes
Stefan Thomas7,0022011$1.2 billionSan Francisco, CaliforniaThomas lost the password to his IronKey hard drive, and he only has two attempts left before it’s erased.
James Howell7,5002009$1.4 billionNewport, WalesHowell threw away his hard drive containing his digital wallet, which was later found in a landfill.
Campbell Simpson1,4002012$80 millionSydney, AustraliaSimpson lost access to his wallet after a computer crash.
Syl Turner16,0002011$880 millionPortland, OregonTurner lost his hard drive, which contained his bitcoins, during a move.
Howells Brothers7,5002013$1.4 billionNewport, WalesThe Howells Brothers lost their hard drive, which contained their digital wallet.
Jered Kenna8002010$44 millionMedellin, ColombiaKenna lost access to his bitcoins after a hacker gained access to his email account.

About the author

Joe Pan is contributing editor for

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