Authorities in the United States have made arrests and announced the seizure of $3.6 billion in cryptocurrency more than five years after hackers stole 119,756 Bitcoin (BTC) from the Bitfinex exchange.
In a Tuesday announcement, the U.S. Department of Justice said it had ordered the arrest of Ilya Lichtenstein and his wife Heather Morgan for allegedly conspiring to launder crypto connected to the 2016 Bitfinex hack. The 119,756 Bitcoin (BTC) — worth $72 million at the time hackers breached security at the exchange in August 2016 — is now valued at more than $5.1 billion.
Since the 2016 hack, individuals connected to the stolen coins have periodically moved small amounts of BTC in separate transactions, leaving the bulk of the funds untouched. The DoJ reported that it had traced 25,000 BTC of these transferred funds to financial accounts controlled by Lichtenstein and Morgan. Special agents were then able to gain access to and seize more than 94,000 BTC — worth $3.6 billion at the time — from Morgan and Lichtenstein after a search warrant allowed them to view files containing private keys to the wallet.
“Today’s arrests, and the department’s largest financial seizure ever, show that cryptocurrency is not a safe haven for criminals,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. “In a futile effort to maintain digital anonymity, the defendants laundered stolen funds through a labyrinth of cryptocurrency transactions. Thanks to the meticulous work of law enforcement, the department once again showed how it can and will follow the money, no matter what form it takes.”
Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the DoJ Kenneth Polite added that federal authorities had the ability to “follow money through the blockchain.” The announcement stated that Morgan and Lichtenstein used a variety of methods to launder the illicit crypto, including chain hopping, depositing the coins at exchanges and darknet markets and withdrawing them, and automating transactions using computer programs. In addition, the pair allegedly set up business accounts in the United States to “legitimize their banking activity.”
Both investigative teams from the FBI and the Cyber Crimes Unit of the Internal Revenue Services’ criminal investigation agency said they had worked to trace the funds from the 2016 hack. Though neither agency specified how authorities were initially led to Morgan and Lichtenstein, FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate said the agency had “the tools to follow the digital trail.”
The DoJ’s actions represent the biggest seizure of crypto by government authorities, with the 2016 Bitfinex hack one of the biggest thefts in the history of the crypto space. Authorities have charged Lichtenstein and Morgan with conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Each could face up to 25 years in prison.