Criminal organizations are increasingly using digital currencies to launder money or otherwise pay for illicit activities, according to one U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
Child exploiters, drug smugglers, illegal firearm sellers and intellectual property rights violators are all beginning to use cryptocurrencies for their transactions, said Matthew Allen, ICE’s special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Allen testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on modernizing anti-money-laundering laws to limit both laundering and terrorist financing on Nov. 28, explaining that virtual currencies are the newest major method for hiding criminal proceeds.
In his testimony, he said:
“HSI agents are increasingly encountering virtual currency, including more recent, anonymity enhancing cryptocurrencies (AECs), in the course of their investigations. AECs are designed to better obfuscate transaction information and are increasingly preferred by [transnational criminal organizations].”
Some exchanges are beginning to design services specifically to thwart tracking by use of mixers that anonymize virtual currency addresses, making it even more difficult to determine which user conducted a particular transaction, Allen said.
The department has had some success in identifying criminals who use bitcoin, however. Allen pointed to the November 2016 arrest of Utah resident Aaron Shamo, who allegedly ran a Xanax and fentanyl manufacturer group.
Shamo allegedly took his profits in bitcoin, and HSI seized approximately $2.5 million from him at the time.
Another alleged fentanyl vendor, Pennsylvanian Henry Koffie, was arrested this past July and had $154,000 seized. Allen said Koffie sold nearly 8,000 orders of the drug, “most of it paid for with bitcoin.”
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