|Trading in Bitcoin has been halted for the day after a service slowdown triggered panic sell-offs, slashing the controversial currency's value in half.
After major Bitcoin trading platform Mt.Gox rushed to assure users it had not been hacked, the Tokyo-based exchange then stopped operations until Friday to let the market "cool down".
A surge in the number of trades caused its systems to "lag", Mt.Gox said in a statement.
“People started to panic, started to sell bitcoin in mass, resulting in an increase of trade that ultimately froze the trade engine,” the statement said.
The virtual currency, which allows users to circumvent the banks, saw its value plummet as low as $105 on Wednesday after hitting an intraday high of $266. It later recovered to $130, then traded at around $120 on Thursday.
The panic sell-off was thought to be triggered by worries that delays in executing exchanges on Mt.Gox, which handles 80pc of all Bitcoin trades, were the result of a cyber attack.
"We would like to reassure you but no we were not last night victim of a DDoS but instead victim of our own success," the trading platform said in an earlier statement.
It said 60,000 new accounts had been opened since the start of April, compared with 75,000 for the whole month of March. The statement also promised improvements in the service "to catch up with the demand".
"We will continue to release several updates today and in the coming few days to improve our system overall performance," it said.
But alternative theories abound over the forces behind Wednesday's dramatic slump, from which the currency has not recovered.
Tech news site Ars Technica noted that the fall coincided with a mass giveaway of Bitcoins by a user of social networking site Reddit.
The elusive party, codenamed "Bitcoinbillionaire", gave away around $12,000 worth of the currency over eight hours to 13 other Redditers, seemingly selected at random, then signed off with a quote from libertarian politician Ron Paul: "It's no coincidence that the century of total war coincided with the century of central banking."
Other Bitcoin traders questioned whether the currency was retreating from a price spike thought to be sparked by the botched Cyprus bail-out, as cuts to depositors’ savings planned under its bail-out further undermined faith in the global banking system.
Bitcoin burst into the mainstream last week as the price rose to $147 against the dollar, from under $20 at the start of this year.
On Tuesday it passed the $200 mark in trading tracked by website Bitcoin Charts.
Created by a developer using a pseudonym in 2009, Bitcoin was intended to offer a means of payment that cuts out the banks through a “purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash [that] would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution”.
The coins are “mined” by computer processing, with the system capping the number that can be produced at 21m. There are currently around 11m in circulation and the process of mining is technically difficult, meaning it has a cost in terms of equipment and electricity.
As well as fears that the price represents a bubble that could burst, there are some concerns about the security of trading systems. The price eased in the second half of last week as Mt. Gox was subject to an attack.
Mt. Gox said it believed hackers aimed to “destabilise Bitcoin in general” as well as abuse the system for profit. “Attackers… wait for everybody to panic-sell their Bitcoins, wait for the price to drop to a certain amount… and start buying as much as they can,” it argued.