A top official from the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) says the agency can track the flow of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in a similar manner to email addresses, and it has seized more than $102 million in crypto across 254 cases since 2015.
USSS assistant director of investigations David Smith told CNBC that the transparent and immutable aspect of blockchain ledgers means investigators can trace transactions easier than fiat in some cases.
“One of the guiding principles of the blockchain is that it is a public ledger that’s shared and everyone with a little bit of computing power has access to it, including law enforcement,” said Smith.
“So the secret service hasn’t been doing anything that wasn’t the original intent of the blockchain. We’re just using the same tracking and tracing mechanisms that were intended.”
Agent Smith said more than $100 million in cryptocurrency has been seized by the Secret Service in international operations targeting cyber-fraudsters since 2015, with agents and analysts conducting investigations out of the Global Investigative Operations Center (GIOC) at the Secret Service headquarters in Washington D.C.
Crypto is seized in a variety of scenarios. Around $1.7 million in Bitcoin was seized in a case from March, in which an Estonian man was sentenced to 66 months in prison for his role in at least 13 international ransomware attacks. Another operation saw the fall of an international money laundering operation in Romania, and another involved a Russian-speaking cybercriminal ring again involved in ransomware.
— U.S. Secret Service (@SecretService) April 19, 2022
Smith likened tracing crypto to tracing an email address:
“When you follow a digital currency wallet, it’s not different than an email address that has some correlating identifiers. Once a person and another person make a transaction, and that gets into the blockchain, we have the ability to follow that email address or wallet address, if you will, and trace it through the blockchain.”
Smith said that criminals often attempt to obscure their trail from law enforcement by making as many transfers as possible, which he likened to as a “house of mirrors”. Stolen Bitcoin and other digital currencies are often converted into stablecoins as a means to avoid volatility.
“Because, you know, the criminals, they’re humans too. They want to avoid some of that market volatility associated with some of the major coins,” he said.
The U.S. Secret Service is one of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies in the country initially created to safeguard the nation’s financial infrastructure. Founded as a branch of the U.S. Treasury Department in 1865, its sole purpose at the time was to combat the counterfeiting of U.S. currency.
Today, the agency falls under the Department of Homeland Security and often conducts joint investigations with other federal agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Cybersecurity & Infrastucture Security Agency (CISA) as well as international agencies to achieve their objectives.
On Tuesday, the CISA, FBI and the US Treasury issued an alert about North-Korean funded cyber threats targeting blockchain companies in response to a $650 million Ronin Bridge hack.
In February, the USSS launched a cryptocurrency awareness hub aimed at raising public awareness about digital asset security and to feature the agency’s work in clamping down on the illicit use of digital assets.
On the website, the agency said that digital assets have been increasingly used to facilitate a growing range of crimes, including various fraud schemes and the use of ransomware. However the agency also noted that the use of cryptocurrencies was not inherently criminal.