The Justice Department recently appointed cybersecurity prosecutor Eun Young Choi to lead the newly formed “National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team”, aimed at cracking down on digital currency schemes involved in illicit finance. It specifically targets both cybercriminals and nation-states, including Iran and North Korea.
Intercepting Crypto Crime
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco announced the new appointment in an interview with Bloomberg on Thursday. They also spoke with Choi, who said the team will be sure to target both crypto exchanges and mixing services. Mixers are tools that clear cryptocurrencies of their on-chain money trail – a quality which, contrary to popular belief, can make them a poor tool for money laundering.
“We’re going to make it our business to go after them and get those proceeds back and make it clear to them that they can’t hide,” Monaco said of criminals using cryptocurrencies.
Despite their traceability, cryptocurrencies can prove effective for financial crimes that are normally prevented through third-party intermediaries. One increasingly popular use case is ransomware attacks, which accounted for over $600 million worth of Bitcoin payments last year. Since Bitcoin transactions are peer-to-peer and irreversible, victims are left with nobody to help them if their funds are stolen.
The Justice Department’s new team, which is part of its criminal division, will consist of over a dozen criminal prosecutors. It has plans to add more.
“We’re trying to centralize so that we’re a one-stop shop of all the subject matter experts within the department,” said Choi.
The task force was originally created in October, with the ultimate goal of ensuring investor confidence when using crypto exchanges. Choi did not single out any targeted exchanges by name.
How Much Can Authorities Do?
Exchanges have been a primary target for financial regulators worldwide seeking to control the cryptocurrency space. These are easily located, governable financial touchpoints that are highly popular for converting crypto into fiat currency.
For example, Canada’s government recently announced that crypto platforms and crowdsourcing sites are prohibited from facilitating donations to a regional protest movement. So far, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have ordered the blacklisting of 34 crypto addresses involved with the movement.
However, such measures don’t account for peer-to-peer trading of Bitcoin, nor conversions to direct cash. They also do not address the increasing popularity of fiat-pegged stablecoins, which allow for long-distance and direct exchange of dollar derivatives.
The latter has become a troublesome regulatory matter for certain US politicians concerned about money laundering and consumer protection.