Cryptocurrency and Crypto Crime

Introduction to a trend of just over a decade ago

Blog Cryptocurrency and Crypto Crime

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Ab initio, our intention was to write a blog post about prominent crypto crime incidents around the world. However, we had little gone into the topic of cryptocurrencies or cryptoassets and related criminality in this blog before. For this reason, we thought it best to have an introduction first, especially for those who know little about this emerging financial paradigm, before moving on to talk about specific cases, which will come as a top 10 in the blog post that follows this one.

What is cryptocurrency?

Cryptocurrency is a digital asset or money that works on blockchain technology and is used to buy and sell products and services or make transactions online without needing an intermediary institution such as a central bank. Unlike "fiat currency" (e.g., the U.S. dollar), for cryptocurrencies, there is no central authority to produce them and manage or maintain their value. Instead, they tend to work under a distributed consensus approach. Although there are currently more than 9,000 cryptocurrencies in circulation, among the best known are, for example, Bitcoin (BTC), Ethereum (ETH), Tether (USDT), Binance Coin (BNB), and Solana (SOL).

The name "cryptocurrency" comes from the blending of the words "cryptography" and "currency." Each cryptocurrency and its transactions are protected by complex cryptographic algorithms or encryption techniques (e.g., public-private key pairs and hashing functions). These processes make it almost impossible for cryptocurrencies to be counterfeited or double-spent. The values of cryptocurrencies and their coins ("publicly agreed-on records of ownership") vary according to supply and demand, just as with any other asset or thing to which we humans attach value.

What is blockchain?

Usually, when cryptocurrencies are transferred from one individual to another, these transactions are recorded in a public ledger or blockchain. Therefore, everyone who is part of a specific crypto project's network can see the transactions occurring. The name "blockchain" arises because different groups of transactions are arranged and recorded in "blocks" that are then linked to a "chain" of other blocks of previous transactions. In this technology, the blocks generated must be verified by all or some individual nodes of the network (devices running the cryptocurrency software) before being confirmed and joined to the chain. Each new block has information from the previous one so that a dependency and a history are created, which makes it almost impossible to alter a block.

How are cryptocurrencies generated and obtained?

The organizers of crypto projects usually control the minting and releasing of coins. For instance, in the case of Bitcoin, considered the first cryptocurrency, which was launched back in 2009, it's said that a few coins would be distributed every 10 minutes or so until a particular ceiling was reached over the next 20 years. These coins are then sought by so-called "miners," who work with programs on highly powerful computing devices to solve proof-of-work puzzles.

Let's get this straight. Bitcoin works based on the proof of work consensus mechanism. Each participating node in the network can use computational power to solve specific problems or puzzles associated with new transaction blocks. That is, to verify and join each block to the blockchain, the solution to the puzzle or complex math problem must be achieved. For example, the cryptocurrency encryption algorithm generates a target hash or string of characters for the block. Then, miners with their computers, as a competition, generate their own hashes, hoping to guess the target hash. The first miner to succeed is the winner of the coins. In addition, they can be paid with the network's transaction fees by the exchanging parties.

This mining work usually takes minutes, which is far too long compared to the milliseconds it takes to generate a hash. But what is really problematic is that increasingly more computational power and, therefore, more energy is required in these mining competitions. Hence, other cryptos use alternative consensus and verification mechanisms, such as proof of stake. In this mechanism, what every individual has to do is to put other crypto funds as collateral. The number of transactions a node can verify depends on the amount of cryptocurrency it is willing to stake or temporarily store in a common safe. Moreover, validators are chosen randomly based on these amounts.

What are some disadvantages of cryptocurrency?

One of the promises of this paradigm after the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8 was to prevent other crises in the future. This was coupled with making financial architecture and operations faster and cheaper. Indeed, it is often more affordable to use cryptocurrencies than traditional financial institutions. For example, with the former, there are no storage fees, and sending money to other countries is much cheaper. However, cryptocurrencies are highly volatile in their prices. Besides, there is usually no insurance for the funds held with them, and, in general, their use is still controversial, and many governments and organizations worldwide have not authorized it.

The disadvantage we are most interested in highlighting here is the one related to cybersecurity. In essence, cryptocurrency blockchains are highly secure. (Even though it is said that transactions are anonymous, they are more likely to be pseudonymous because authorities such as the FBI can track them for cases in which misconduct needs to be investigated.) The issue is so strict that, in them, you handle a private key or password that if you lose it, you have no way to recover access to your funds. In other words, there is no password reset function or support service.

But things take a different turn when off-chain crypto-related key storage repositories such as exchanges and online wallets appear. Apart from the fact that, with them, there is again dependence on a third party (for example, to retrieve the keys), which, by the way, is out of the initially intended decentralization approach, these systems can be hacked when there's not enough investment on their security. Breaches, heists, and frauds or scams then crop up.

Crypto crime

Cryptocurrency crime, or crypto crime, is growing in parallel with the cryptocurrency market. As reported by Crystal, $16.7 billion has been stolen in cryptocurrencies from January 2011 to February 2023 in 461 incidents. About 27% of that money was obtained with security breaches, 28% with DeFi hacks, and 45% with scams. According to Crystal, the most popular crypto-theft method until 2021 was the infiltration of crypto-exchange security systems, but since then, and currently, it is DeFi hacks.

Cryptocurrency exchanges are systems that serve to purchase coins using conventional mechanisms and for trading different kinds of cryptocurrencies. They also provide user wallets that free people from using cryptographic keys. However, they have full custody of the cryptocurrencies, and these can be irretrievably lost in case of theft. In fact, it is said that between 2009 and 2015, more than a third of these exchange platforms were compromised, and almost half of them disappeared.

DeFi (decentralized finance) is a recently emerging financial technology based on secure distributed ledgers such as those used by cryptocurrencies. DeFi is a broad concept encompassing different applications for traditional but decentralized (oriented to peer-to-peer exchange) financial services (e.g., sales, loans, investments). These decentralized applications (dApps) are built on top of blockchain technologies such as smart contracts or digital agreements (automated programs to verify specific rules before funds are transferred). Among the different types of digital assets that dApps can handle are cryptocurrencies. These applications can be created by any developer, as DeFi is usually a free, open-source marketplace based primarily on the Ethereum network.

According to Chainalysis, 2022 has been the biggest year for crypto hacking, totaling around $3.8 billion in thefts. Of this sum, roughly 82% corresponded to attacks on DeFi protocols. And of what was stolen in these DeFi hacks, more than 60% was obtained by attacking cross-chain bridge protocols.

As the name suggests, these protocols allow users to transfer funds or cryptocurrencies from one blockchain to another. Typically, this is done by blocking the assets in a smart contract on the first blockchain and minting equivalent assets on the second blockchain. These smart contracts act as large, centralized repositories of funds backing the assets that pass to the other blockchain. As a result, they become attractive targets for hackers, who look for bugs in the code or other vulnerabilities to exploit at the right time. Likewise, these protocols allow the growth of "'chain-hopping' typologies of money laundering, whereby criminals attempt to break the funds trail on the blockchain by swapping their ill-gotten funds into other assets or coins."

Reportedly, of the $3.8 billion stolen in 2022, roughly $1.7 billion was stolen by the notorious North Korea-linked hacking team Lazarus Group. During 2021 and 2022, this group heavily relied on the crypto mixer Tornado Cash, which, thanks to its technical attributes, made it difficult to trace specific funds and thus allowed them to launder the stolen cryptocurrencies.

Crypto mixers are programs that aim to increase the privacy of transactions by breaking end-to-end traceability. They allow mashing up various types of funds, including cryptocurrencies, in private pools before being transferred at random intervals to different designated recipients. While they are not always for illicit uses, it is true that they largely exist to overshadow the normal transparency of the crypto ecosystem and assist cybercriminals. That is why several mixers have already been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in recent years.

Protocols, services and programs such as those we have presented here are of great help to malicious hackers and criminals and, in fact, have contributed to an increase in the number of ransomware attacks over the years.

Another type of crypto crime is flash loan attacks. These are carried out by exploiting smart contracts that enforce flash loans. On these loans, users can borrow assets with no upfront collateral or third-party overseers as long as they pay back before the transaction concludes. (In the case of Bitcoin, for example, the transaction can take 10 to 30 minutes, while for Ethereum, it takes around 13 seconds). Attackers in that period extract funds from the blockchain and take advantage of issues such as a cryptocurrency being priced differently in two different markets: They use those funds to buy coins on the platform where they are cheaper and then sell them where they are more expensive, repay the loan and make a profit.

Apart from the hacking acts, as mentioned above, the biggest thefts have been scams. Normally, there is something like the Ponzi scheme (in this case for cryptoassets), a fraudulent investing scam in which investors are promised high rates of return but end up being scammed after receiving some deceptive first funds. In this context, some people speak often of the "rug pull" method. Fraudsters develop new cryptos, lure investors with them, and then disappear with the invested funds, especially when prices reach a certain ceiling.

Another similar investment scam that has come to the fore lately is "pig butchering." Here, criminals seek to establish supposed romantic or friendship links online with victims (often the commonly very vulnerable elderly), to whom they portray themselves as successful, having profited enormously from investing in cryptoassets. From there, they then go on to persuade people to invest as well. In some cases, scammers create fake websites that simulate cryptocurrency exchange platforms, and that is where victims transfer their funds. In other cases, victims actually acquire legitimate cryptoassets but unknowingly end up transferring them to crypto wallets controlled by criminals.

A couple of recommendations

If you develop DeFi protocols and dApps with good intentions, remember that you are in an area that is generally opaque on regulatory and security issues. Therefore, it is always advisable to have third-party cybersecurity experts performing continuous tests on your software, including simulated attack scenarios. Keep in mind that DeFi protocols should have good security controls in place, such as automated processes that interrupt transactions if suspicious activity is detected.

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Now, if you are going to use cryptocurrencies or other cryptoassets, you should thoroughly examine how they work and through which protocols you will use them. You must really understand what this is all about. Check the sites of the projects well and even the comments of their users, seeking to be sure of their authenticity. If you can, contact other people who have invested or, better yet, experts or advisors on the subject. Be wary of anyone who invites you to invest, especially when that person has only recently entered your life.

Finally, in the event that you are already in the crypto market, enable two-factor or multi-factor authentication in your crypto wallet or other platforms, and take good care of and do not share your private keys.

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