Local law enforcement agencies are learning the ways to track and seize stolen cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum — a job that used to be reserved for federal agencies.
Because of increasing reports of stolen cryptocurrency in online scams, local high-tech crime units are having to adapt to the changing digital crime climate by learning how to use blockchain-tracking tools in their investigations.
Santa Clara County deputy DA Erin West says that when it comes to stolen digital currency, the goal is to track the money until it is swapped at a major exchange, where they can then send a warrant to freeze the money and return it to its owner. To do that, they have to rely on special software.
“Our bread and butter these days really is tracing cryptocurrency and trying to seize it and trying to get there faster than the bad guys are moving it somewhere where we can’t grab it,” West said.
Because crypto transactions are recorded on a public ledger, tools have been developed to help law enforcement and financial auditors monitor and trace transactions to combat fraud and other crimes like money laundering.
West told NBC News that she recently recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for a California man who was scammed in a fake romance.
While she said arresting and extraditing scammers is often impossible in many cases, she was able to freeze the money on the exchange and have the company return it to the owner’s private digital wallet.
Since the advent of cryptocurrency, criminals have been using the technology as a way to transfer money anonymously without using intermediaries like banks that require personal identification.
To combat cybercrime, agencies such as the FBI, IRS, DOJ and the Secret Service have primarily been the ones to lead investigations.
However, as crimes involving cryptocurrency become more commonplace on a local level, state and local agencies are finding ways to conduct their own investigations with expensive tools like blockchain tracking programs.
They are also forming relationships with agencies in other countries to bring scammers to justice. However, countries like Russia and China, where many cyber criminals and fraudsters are based, do not extradite to the US.
According to U.S.-based cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, the number of legal requests like warrants and subpoenas has more than doubled from 2020 to 2021, from 1,197 to 2,727.
Of those, requests from state and local law enforcement have grown the most.
Elizabeth Roper of the New York County District Attorney’s Office handles cybercrime and ID theft cases in the county. She said that more resources are being made available for local agencies to conduct their investigations on these issues.
“There’s just so much of it that it’s just not realistic to think that the federal government and federal law enforcement is going to be able to address every threat and handle every case,” Roper said. “So It is important for locals to develop competency in these areas.”
Roper said that a successful outcome in a case often means being able to return stolen funds rather than catch and punish the criminal.
“It is interesting because you start to think about what it means to have a successful investigation, what accomplishes the most good, what’s the best use of our resources,” she said. “I think we’re going to see it more and more frequently with these particular assets than we have in the past.”
State-run agencies like Ohio’s Department of Public Safety have recently received more funding to address cybercrime.
Ben Suver, director of the Ohio DPS law enforcement initiatives, said the state’s Narcotics Intelligence Center is using the funds to purchase blockchain tools for dark web drug cases in particular.
As a result, the narcotics unit is seeing a different caseload than it normally does.
“We have a number of these agencies that just don’t have this technology and know-how, and so although it’s narcotics, they’re calling us and telling us about these different scams where elderly folks are being ordered to buy cryptocurrency,” Suver said.
Local agencies are also pursuing more training on how to use blockchain analysis software.
CEO of cybersecurity company GroupSense Kurtis Minder said that he has received an influx of requests for seminars and training sessions from local agencies.
“We’re seeing the very beginning of this, where they’re feeling some responsibility to have to speak to this kind of thing or show some level of competence,” he said.