London’s Metropolitan Police have seized Bitcoin worth nearly £180m and arrested a 39-year-old woman as part of an ongoing investigation into international money laundering.
The confiscation is the largest haul of illicit cryptocurrency assets ever made in the UK and comes barely a fortnight after the Met seized £114m worth of Bitcoin on 24 June 2021.
The force’s Economic Crime Command acted on the back of intelligence received about the transfer of criminal assets. The arrested woman who was previously interviewed in relation to the discovery of the trove, has been bailed to a date later in July.
Detective constable Joe Ryan said: “Less than a month ago we successfully seized £114m in cryptocurrency. Our investigation since then has been complex and wide-ranging. We have worked hard to trace this money and identify the criminality it may be linked to.
“Today’s seizure is another significant landmark in this investigation which will continue for months to come as we hone in on those at the centre of this suspected money laundering operation,” he said.
Cryptocurrencies and those that deal in them are coming under increasing scrutiny from law enforcement and regulators around the world – recent weeks have seen the UK authorities enact a ban on the operations of Binance, a crypto exchange, while the Chinese government has also clamped down.
The reasons for this crackdown are manifold. For example, the Chinese actions targeting cryptocurrency were linked to the high electricity consumption needed to power the computers that engage in cryptomining, which is becoming a major contributor to global carbon emissions, while some crypto investment schemes are little more than glorified pyramid or Ponzi scams.
But it is the surge in ransomware attacks and general digitally enabled crime in 2021 that has shone a powerful spotlight on how cryptocurrencies are used as a safe harbour by cyber criminals to wash their gains; at the beginning of June, the US authorities recovered Bitcoin worth $2.3m, a specific part of the ransom extorted from Colonial Pipeline by an affiliate of the DarkSide syndicate.
Deputy assistant commissioner Graham McNulty said: “Proceeds of crime are laundered in many different ways. While cash still remains king in the criminal word, as digital platforms develop, we’re increasingly seeing organised criminals using cryptocurrency to launder their dirty money. While some years ago this was fairly uncharted territory, we now have highly trained officers and specialist units working hard in this space to remain one step ahead of those using it for illicit gain.
“The detectives on this case have worked tirelessly and meticulously to trace millions of pounds worth of cryptocurrency suspected of being linked to criminality and now being laundered to hide the trail,” he said. “Those linked to this money are clearly working hard to hide it. Our investigation will stop at nothing to disrupt the transfer and identify those involved.”
ESET’s Jake Moore said that while the seizure would come as a huge blow to the gangs behind the money laundering, it was an “extremely rare” outcome.
This is in part because although currencies like Bitcoin offer a public ledger, there is nothing in place to stop cyber criminals from laundering money through an automated mixer over and over, until it has no obvious or apparent ties to its origin. This makes it very hard to investigate effectively.
“Painstaking intelligence gathering over long periods of time would have taken a tremendous amount of time and resources, which unfortunately is not possible for all cyber crime investigation,” he said. “The amount of disruption caused by this seizure represents the new wave of law enforcement techniques used to infiltrate gangs which have long had the upper hand.
“This highlights that cyber crime doesn’t always pay, and even when the attackers themselves remain anonymous, our law enforcement’s secondary tactic is to fight back with their own version of disruption and cause major headaches for those at large,” said Moore.