A first ever global meeting between law enforcement officials just wrapped up after two days at the Europol headquarters in The Hague. The meeting was attended by 70 officials from 21 countries. It was organized by the European Cybercrime Centre and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
The participants included financial and cybercrime investigators, as well as prosecutors. The anonymous nature of virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, was a focal point of the discussions. Participants shared their concerns of how this anonymity facilitates the trafficking of narcotics and contraband online.
Furthering these concerns is the fact that Bitcoin is garnering greater acceptance worldwide. The number of merchants accepting it for payment is estimated at 26,000. Bitcoin ATMs are becoming more common as well. Criminals now have a greater choice of outlets of where to launder their bitcoins, which can now be used to purchase everyday merchandise without having to first exchange them for fiat.
Also discussed were ongoing criminal cases related to virtual currency. Silk Road was an online marketplace facilitating drug trafficking through bitcoins. It was shuttered last year and its operator, Ross William Ulbricht, was arrested. 9.5 million bitcoins and “hundreds of kilograms of illegal narcotics and other contraband” were allegedly transacted through the marketplace.
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Even bigger was Liberty Reserve, which instead of bitcoins, used its own system of “Liberty Reserve dollars/euros” to facilitate as many as 55 million illegal transactions worth a total of up to $6 billion. After a multi-year investigation by authorities in 17 countries, the site was shuttered last year and several of its operators were arrested. Despite the global nature of digital currencies, law enforcement personnel collaborated and leveraged the laws of local jurisdictions to finally put an end to the U.S. operation, which started in a different form as far back as 2002.
The global nature of digital currencies thus necessitates global collaboration when it comes to law enforcement. ICE HSI Deputy Assistant Director, Mark Witzal, discussed this point in his opening address for the meeting:
“Law enforcement is seeing a disturbing trend of the use of virtual currencies to buy and sell contraband, then launder the proceeds from those crimes. Coordination meetings such as this are vitally important, so that as each of our law enforcement agencies learns more about how criminals use virtual currencies, and we communicate these lessons with each other.”
Participants pledged cooperation and continued information sharing in fighting crime facilitated by virtual currencies.