The value of the shadowy digital currency known as bitcoin has jumped to record highs this month, sending shock waves through America’s defense and intelligence agencies, which fear its growth signals a surge in use by terrorists, drug kingpins, white-collar criminals and Russian cybercriminals who don’t want to be tracked by the world’s governments.
This summer, the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the Department of Justice and scores of European illicit finance law enforcement officials have fought back with a wave of operations against Russian cybercriminals. Late last month, they shuttered AlphaBay and Hansa — two of the biggest “dark web” contraband marketplaces rife with the illegal sale of guns, drugs and other forbidden merchandise.
In an even more startling sign of the battle raging around bitcoin, a FinCEN-led international illicit financing task force arrested a Russian “mastermind of organized crime” on a small beachside village in northern Greece less than two weeks ago.
Alexander Vinnik, who is accused of laundering more than $4 billion worth of illegal funds using bitcoin accounts, operated BTC-e, one of the world’s oldest bitcoin exchanges.
U.S. authorities accuse Mr. Vinnik of facilitating crimes including drug trafficking, public corruption, hacking, fraud, identity theft and tax refund fraud.
“Just as new computer technologies continue to change the way we engage each other and experience the world, so too will criminals subvert these new technologies to serve their own nefarious purposes,” Brian Stretch, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, said about BTC-e.