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What’s Bitcoin? Most are stumped

But virtual currency surging in popularity

Some Americans think Bitcoin is an Xbox game. Others think it might be an iPhone app. The majority have no idea it’s a virtual currency they can use to buy things as varied as T-shirts and Tesla Motors sedans, according to a Bloomberg National Poll.

Only 42 percent of Americans who responded to the Dec. 6 to 9 telephone survey correctly identified Bitcoin, which has grown more than 80-fold in value this year as its popularity expands.

“I’m not sure what the value of it is and what I’d be able to exchange it for,” said Olga Ruff, 62, of Dallas, who correctly identified Bitcoin. Ruff said she’s unlikely to start accepting it for the small jewelry business she operates out of her home: “What use would it be for me?”

Individual Bitcoins, which exist as software and aren’t regulated by any country or banking authority, are accepted at businesses as varied as a Lamborghini dealership in Costa Mesa, Calif., and a Peruvian food truck in Washington.

Still, the currency’s use is far from widespread, even among those who know what it is.

“I don’t necessarily know if it’s something I would think about using to make purchases,” said poll respondent Jeremy Labadie, 32, of New York, in a follow-up interview.

Labadie, who works on Internet security technology and is familiar with Bitcoin, said he has considered buying some as an investment.

Introduced in 2008 by a programmer or group of programmers under the name Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin gained credibility after law enforcement and securities agencies said in U.S. Senate hearings that it could be a legitimate means of exchange.

Bitcoins were trading at more than $860 this month on Bitstamp, one of the more active online exchanges where the digital money is traded for dollars and other currencies.

They reached a high of $1,132 on the site Dec. 4, a rally that gathered steam after regulators in October shut down the Silk Road Hidden Website, where people could obtain guns, drugs and other illicit goods using Bitcoins. That generated optimism that the digital money would become more widely used for legal purposes.

Asked to choose from a list, 6 percent of those polled said they think Bitcoin is an Xbox game, while another 6 percent said it’s an iPhone app. Forty-six percent said they have no idea what it is.

The telephone survey of 1,004 Americans has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points and was conducted by Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co.