Many people have no clue about this thing called Bitcoin. This week’s collapse of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange demonstrates, it’s time they do.

Bitcoins are virtual currency. Like gold and corn, prices vary daily. Unlike gold and corn, there’s no “there” there — no physical stuff, or even made-up stuff backed by anyone or anything. Bitcoins are bought online and used in an unregulated Bitcoin electronic financial currency system. Some purchase Bitcoins hoping their value changes. Others use them for online payments. No traditional financial institution (like a bank) is used, and payments are made directly, without intermediaries such as PayPal. Thousands of companies now accept Bitcoins.

Millions of user computers hold Bitcoins in “digital wallets” or investors use online “wallet services.” The Bitcoin system is decentralized by design, operating in international cyberspace, hence subject to cyber theft. To secure anonymity, user identities are encrypted. It’s all very cloak-and-daggerish. That provides advantageous appeal for people who distrust governments and large multinational banks. Bitcoins, temporarily, offer an alternative to both.

However, criminals conducting clandestine transactions may use Bitcoin for illegal drugs, weapons, slave labor or gambling. Forget the quintessential standoff where brief-cased Benjamins are exchanged for illicit goods or services. “First, show me the money.” Nah. With Bitcoin the payment is made online; the illegal matter is simply conveyed. Easy breezy. Bitcoin has the potential to make narcotics and weapons trading, human trafficking and money laundering creepily corporate ... and eerily efficient.

This week, alleged technology and security issues shuttered the portals of Mt. Gox, the world’s once-largest Bitcoin exchange. Millions of customer funds vanished into the thin air in which they were invested — poof! Furthermore, without a pittance of regulation, the value of Bitcoins is exceedingly susceptible to manipulation, and an open range for fraud and abuse. Buyer beware? You betcha.

The question for those involved in this pioneering endeavor is: How can Bitcoin enjoy a vibrant expansion of legitimate commerce while ensuring fundamental consumer protections? The answer requires leadership, vision and acceptance of a basic, balanced, harmonized regulatory regimen. Voluntarily establishing global, industry-wide parameters will prove a formidable challenge given the inherent nature of a cryptocurrency system and stakeholders who seek to operate in an entrepreneurial, innovative netherworld without physical constraints. “We aren’t part of the stink’n system and we la-la-like it.”

Meanwhile, the overall Bitcoin experiment is fast-forwarding at breakneck speed. Absent an industry led effort to address intrinsic pitfalls and liabilities through enhanced self-regulation, it’s simply a matter of time before Bitcoin’s bite draws enough blood to compel policymakers and regulators to action.

Bart Chilton is a commissioner on the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the author of “Ponzimonium: How Scam Artists Are Ripping Off America.” McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

© 2014, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.