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With All Eyes on Bitcoin, Cybercriminals Turn to Monero to Launder Illicit Gains
23 Jun 2021

Investors aren’t the only ones with doubts about Bitcoin these days.

Concerned about the ability of investigators to trace Bitcoin transactions through underlying blockchain data, cybercriminals are also becoming increasingly wary of their longstanding cryptocurrency of choice, according to the Financial Times.

For criminal syndicates, the shift is due in part to the anonymity promised by an alternative cryptocurrency: the “privacy coin” Monero, which is designed to obscure data that could be used by investigators to identify the sender and receiver, as well as the total value transferred. The popularity of Monero among criminals has grown as law enforcement officials have ramped up investigations into ransomware attacks and other cyber-crimes.

“We’ve seen ransomware groups specifically shifting to Monero,” Bryce Webster-Jacobsen, director of intelligence at GroupSense, told the Financial Times. “[Cybercriminals] have recognized the ability for mistakes to be made using Bitcoin that allow blockchain transactions to reveal their identity.”  

Two of the most notorious ransomware groups—REvil and DarkSide—have recently signaled their preference for the privacy coin.

REvil, a Russia-linked group believed to be behind last month’s attack on meatpacker JBS, stopped accepting bitcoins as payment earlier this year, declaring that it would only accept Monero, Brett Callow, a threat analyst at Emsisoft, told the news outlet.

DarkSide, which has been blamed for the Colonial Pipeline hack in the United States, and Babuk, which was responsible for the recent attack on the Washington, D.C. police, accept both Bitcoin and Monero but charge a 10-20 percent premium to victims paying with bitcoins.

Last year, the use of Monero by ransomware gangs was comparable to a “rounding error,” Justin Ehrenhofer, a cryptocurrency compliance expert, told the FT. Today, the privacy coin accounts for 10-20 percent of ransoms paid to cybercrime groups—a statistic that is likely to jump to more than 50 percent by the end of the year, he said.

The cryptocurrency’s absence of a blockchain trail is proving problematic for investigators.

In a report published last year, Europol found that privacy coins have “rendered cryptocurrency investigations more challenging and [that] we can expect these to feature more prominently in future investigations”. 

Read more at the Financial Times

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