Tom Sadon, Director of Product Marketing
April 07, 2021

5 Reasons Why Criminals & Terrorists Turn to Cryptocurrencies

The frenzy surrounding cryptocurrency is nearing epic proportions, as cryptocurrency usage surges and Bitcoin valuations hit record highs.

But not all aspects of this phenomenon are a blessing. Just as cryptocurrencies are gaining traction with consumers as legitimate transactions, they are also increasingly used by criminal actors, with a global total of $10 billion in illicit activities in 2020. We examined that trend in a previous blog article.

The dubious and illegal side of cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrencies serve as a financial enabler to a multitude of illegal and disreputable purposes such as:

  • Money laundering
  • Fraud
  • Drug trafficking
  • Human trafficking
  • Child exploitation
  • Dark marketplace trading
  • Cybercrime
  • Terror funding

Consequently, government security organizations are directing their resources to this domain, with the aim of tracking illicit transactions and identifying the parties involved. But this is a very difficult and complex task – and this is exactly why criminals and terrorists opt to use cryptocurrencies.

Under the mattress

There’s no need to explain why criminals and terrorist prefer not to open bank accounts to store their ill-gotten gains. Banks are highly regulated institutions and are subject to specific requirements, restrictions and guidelines. Banks require identification documents, as they are bound by KYC (Know Your Customer) regulations, legal statements to approve large transactions to comply with anti-money laundering regulations, and governmental sanctions may be applied at any time in the form of accounts frozen or seized.

In the movies, criminals and terrorists move money around in suitcases or duffle bags and store it under the mattress or in the floorboards. In reality, large amounts of money are difficult and risky to move around this way, specifically when it comes to international transfers.

So, the storage of choice for criminals and terrorists is cryptocurrency. But why is it so attractive?

Why cryptocurrencies appeal to bad actors

#1: The promise of anonymity

While all transactions that occur on the blockchain are kept on public record and are accessible to anyone for review, the identities of transaction makers remain unknown.

Transactions are made from one or more crypto address to one or more destination addresses. A crypto address is a random set of characters, which is roughly the crypto equivalent of a bank account number.

Anticipating payment of funds? You send your address to the delivering party, who uses this address to deliver the funds. But there is no link between the address – a random set of characters – and its owner. So, while the transaction data is public, the transaction maker remains anonymous.

This way, criminals can, seemingly anonymously, trade  drugs, weapons, explosives, child pornography and more. Similarly, terrorists can ask for funding and donations for extremist organizations, without revealing their identity.

#2: No strings attached

Cryptocurrencies are transferred between peers, with no former acquaintance between the parties required. No third party is involved or needed as mediator.

This is largely exploited by criminals for one-off sales of drugs or digital data (e.g. child pornography) as well as for terror funding across borders.

#3: Unmatched access and speed

Trading with crypto is so easy. It requires just an internet connection, a wallet application that is quickly and easily downloaded to your device, or just using a cloud service, and… that’s it. In a few clicks you can transfer money, or a monetary equivalent, anywhere in the world.

Cryptocurrencies are digital assets, controlled by no central authority, hence they are always available, and there is no need to validate the transaction with a central body or third party. In addition, there are usually no delays, as we experience for example, when transferring money internationally between bank accounts.

Cryptocurrencies are transferred within minutes and there’s no way to reverse the transactions once they are confirmed by the miners. 

Take the example of the Twitter hack, an attack in which Twitter accounts are compromised to post fake tweets that appear to promote a cryptocurrency scam. In a notable case of Twitter hack in 2020, accounts belonging to Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Kim Kardashian and several other high profile individuals were hacked, while a Bitcoin wallet which appeared in some of the tweets received more than $100,000 worth of Bitcoins through hundreds of transactions. The fact that transactions are so fast and irreversible means that new crimes such as scams and Twitter hacks are now possible.

#4: Easy storage and transfer

As digital assets, cryptocurrencies are easily stored. The storage of the crypto wallet information requires no physical space, as opposed to piles of bills. This means that they do not attract the attention of thieves, nor, most importantly for criminals, of the authorities. Cryptocurrencies are also easy to transfer, both locally and internationally, with no risk of being seized.

#5: Borderless

Cryptocurrencies can be transferred quickly and easily from one crypto address to another, whether they serve the same person or totally different parties, locals or foreigners, acquaintances, or strangers. They are easily transferred globally, thus enabling international trading, which, in the criminal setting, translates to trafficking.

The challenge

These reasons are also why government security and law enforcement organizations face a daunting task – to detect illicit transactions made by criminals, and bring them to justice.

The very benefits of cryptocurrency pose the greatest challenge:

  • There is no link between a cryptocurrency address and the person behind it
  • Criminals and terrorists can transfer funds globally, easily and quickly

How can Cognyte’s crypto-intelligence and analytics solution help?

Cognyte’s crypto-intelligence and analytics solution pulls the rug from beneath the feet of criminal and terrorist elements. It de-anonymizes and reveals illicit transactions made by criminals, thus helping security and law enforcement organizations successfully overcome the challenge of cryptocurrency anonymity.

Based on innovative technology and analytics capabilities, Cognyte enables authorities to reveal cryptocurrency transactions made by known suspects without relying on exchange collaborations, regardless of crypto services such as mixers, shapeshifters, and privacy-enhanced wallets, that are used to obscure the crypto trail – as explored in our previous blog post.

With Cognyte’s solution, government security and law enforcement organizations can shed light on cryptocurrency activities in their jurisdiction and gain a valuable new tool to investigate complex cases. To find out how you can overcome the cryptocurrency challenge and tackle this growing threat, we invite you to contact us.

Tom Sadon, Director of Product Marketing

Product Marketing Director of Network Intelligence and Blockchain Analytics, Tom bring extensive experience and know-how in the intelligence field: . Intelligence analyst, head of dept. and product manager in the Israeli SIGINT National Unit (ISNU), 10+ years service with honors and awards . Director of Cyber Threat Intelligence in a growing Israeli cyber start-up . Held various managerial positions in Cognyt'es Product Marketing team . Holds a B.A. in Economics, LL.B. & Research LL.M. in Corporate Law, Tel Aviv University.
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