The world of cryptocurrency can be a difficult one to infiltrate for law enforcement, but according to recently released statistics, agencies are making a strong effort to gather more information to crack down on crypto crime on the web.
Before we delve into the story, let’s crack the code on what cryptocurrencies actually are. In layman’s terms, think of them as basically digital currency. According to Nerdwallet, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum are a form of payment that can be exchanged online for goods and services. They work by using a technology called blockchain, a decentralized technology spread across many computers that manages and records transactions. While cryptocurrencies allow for an exciting and futuristic new way of buying things online, they also open up the potential for bad guys and hackers to engage in illicit activities on the dark web. The latter is what concerns law enforcement.
According to cryptocurrency exchange Kraken, global data requests by law enforcement agencies rose a whopping 49% in 2019. There were a total of 710 information requests, which impacted 1,222 accounts. The United States was by far the most involved country, accounting for 432 requests; next on the list was Great Britain with only 86 requests.
These numbers coincide with a steep rise in cryptocurrency-related crime. Reuters reports that losses from digital currency crime soared to $4.4 billion just in the first nine months of 2019, up more than 150% from 2018.
“The 150% increase in crypto theft and fraud reflects how criminals are adapting for bigger and better scores,” Dave Jevans, chief executive officer of blockchain forensics company CipherTrace, tells Reuters. “Criminals chase money and the money is right here and ripe for the taking. Little attacks are often easy to defend against, but targeted attacks are far more lucrative.”
CipherTrace says the majority of those losses came from two main sources. One saw users and customers lose $2.9 billion from an alleged Ponzi scheme involving PlusToken, a crypto wallet and exchange. The other came when customers lost $195 million from the Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX.
“Even without the two biggest thefts and scams, we are still witnessing many multi-million dollar crimes,” Jevans says. “There is a relatively consistent increase in criminal activity year over year, and we don’t expect that to change overnight.”
As indicated by the steep rise in law enforcement data requests, there is a coordinated effort to stop the kind of fraud and theft that leads to the massive losses suffered in 2019. CipherTrace notes that the crypto sector is seeing fewer outright thefts, but more exit scams and other frauds by insiders. Jevans says this indicates that exchanges have become tougher for criminals to hack, but it’s also making them more cautious.
“Today’s attackers are patient and willing to spend more time waiting for a payout,” he says. “Not only have we seen more and more $100 million thefts and scams, those responsible are acting carefully, only cashing out small amounts to stay under the radar.”
Kraken also provided a breakdown of which American law enforcement agencies made data requests. The FBI led the charge with 116 requests, with the DEA following in second with 73 requests. The DEA’s increased involvement seems to indicate a need to crack down on criminals using cryptocurrencies to purchase illegal drugs.
With more money flowing through digital exchanges every year, it is becoming imperative that law enforcement agencies become intimately familiar with cryptocurrency. The surge in requests in the past year indicates that agencies are doing just that.