ICE Agent: Cryptocurrencies Increasingly Used in Money Laundering

By: Nikhilesh De

Criminal organizations are increasingly using cryptocurrencies to launder money or otherwise pay for illicit activities, according to one U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

Child exploiters, drug smugglers, illegal firearm sellers and intellectual property rights violators are all beginning to use cryptocurrencies for their transactions, said Matthew Allen, ICE’s special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Allen testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on modernizing anti-money-laundering laws to limit both laundering and terrorist financing on Nov. 28, explaining that virtual currencies are the newest major method for hiding criminal proceeds.

In his testimony, he said:

“HSI agents are increasingly encountering virtual currency, including more recent, anonymity enhancing cryptocurrencies (AECs), in the course of their investigations. AECs are designed to better obfuscate transaction information and are increasingly preferred by [transnational criminal organizations].”

Some exchanges are beginning to design services specifically to thwart tracking by use of mixers that anonymize virtual currency addresses, making it even more difficult to determine which user conducted a particular transaction, Allen said.

Drug arrests

The department has had some success in identifying criminals who use bitcoin, however. Allen pointed to the November 2016 arrest of Utah resident Aaron Shamo, who allegedly ran a Xanax and fentanyl manufacturer group.

Shamo allegedly took his profits in bitcoin, and HSI seized approximately $2.5 million from him at the time.

Another alleged fentanyl vendor, Pennsylvanian Henry Koffie, was arrested this past July and had $154,000 seized. Allen said Koffie sold nearly 8,000 orders of the drug, “most of it paid for with bitcoin.”

https://www.coindesk.com/ice-director-cryptocurrencies-are-increasingly-being-used-in-money-laundering/

Turkish gold trader details money laundering scheme for Iran

Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A Turkish-Iranian gold trader described in a U.S. court on Wednesday how he ran a sprawling international money laundering scheme aimed at helping Iran get around U.S. sanctions and spend its oil and gas revenues abroad.

Reza Zarrab, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with U.S. prosecutors in the criminal trial of a Turkish bank executive, told jurors in federal court in Manhattan that he helped Iran use funds deposited in Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank to buy gold, which was smuggled to Dubai and sold for cash.

The testimony, given through Turkish interpreters, came on the second day of the trial of Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who has pleaded not guilty.

U.S. prosecutors have charged nine people in the case, although only Zarrab, 34, and Atilla, 47, have been arrested by U.S. authorities. Prosecutors have said the defendants took part in a scheme that involved gold trades and fake purchases of food to give Iran access to international markets, violating U.S. sanctions.

The case has fueled tensions between the United States and Turkey, which are NATO allies. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s government has said the case was fabricated for political reasons.

Standing before the jury in tan prison garb on Wednesday, Zarrab drew a multicolored diagram to illustrate the complex series of transactions he said he used to avoid scrutiny of U.S. banks and regulators. He explained how he falsified customs documents to make it appear that gold was bound for Iran, rather than Dubai.

Zarrab said Atilla was “the most knowledgeable person about the sanction rules” at Halkbank, and that he helped develop the scheme. He said Atilla and Halkbank’s then-general manager, Suleyman Aslan, instructed him how to carry it out.

“He made sure that the system and method worked,” Zarrab said of Atilla.

Zarrab said he began working with Halkbank on the scheme in 2012, after bribing Zafer Caglayan, then Turkey’s economy minister, to broker a deal with Aslan. He said Aslan had initially refused to work with Zarrab because he was too well known.

Zarrab said he paid Caglayan bribes amounting to more than $50 million.

Caglayan and Suleyman have also both been charged in the case. Turkey’s government has previously said that Caglayan acted within Turkish and international law. Halkbank has said that all of its transactions fully complied with national and international regulations.

Zarrab testified that before working with Halkbank, he handled Iranian transactions through Turkey’s Aktif Bank. He said the bank initially refused to let him open an account, but relented after Zarrab asked Egemen Bagis, then Turkey’s minister of European Union affairs, for help.

 Zarrab said Bagis set up a meeting between him and Aktif Bank’s general manager and that he was then allowed to open an account. However, Aktif Bank later shut down the account after receiving a warning from the United States, Zarrab said.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach anyone at Aktif Bank for comment after working hours on Wednesday.

Zarrab is expected to continue testifying on Thursday.

Inside Airbnb’s Russian Money-Laundering Problem

Russian crime forums have been using the home-sharing service to shuffle around cash under the table, sometimes with the help of legitimate Airbnb hosts.

As a recently unsealed indictment against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort showed, not even Airbnb is safe from money launderers. But Manafort isn’t the only one allegedly funneling dirty money through the mega-popular accommodation service. Scammers are leveraging Airbnb to launder dirty cash from stolen credit cards, according to posts on underground forums and cybersecurity researchers consulted by The Daily Beast.

The news shows how fraudsters will seize any opportunity they can, especially when there is an opening for pushing cash through online services, which sometimes require relatively little effort, a computer, and just a bit of creativity.

“People [have] been doing it forever,” one current and experienced credit-card scammer told The Daily Beast.

The Daily Beast found a number of recent posts on several Russian-language crime forums, in which users were looking for people to collaborate with to abuse Airbnb’s service. According to Rick Holland, VP of strategy from cybersecurity firm Digital Shadows, these operations rely on an individual or group using legitimate or stolen Airbnb accounts to request bookings and make payments to their collaborating Airbnb host. The host then sends back a percentage of the profits, despite no one staying in the property.

In essence, it’s a way to extract value out of stolen credit cards. In another case, fraudsters might buy electronic goods such as iPhones with stolen cards to then resell at a profit. This is the same idea of laundering funds, just with Airbnb.

“The money is 50/50,” one apparent scammer wrote on a Russian crime forum in August. “You receive the money within two days after the booking date,” it continues, and adds that there are “story-telling hosts” ready, likely referring to hosts who are in on the laundering.

Another poster on the same forum says they are looking for “hosts for cooperation,” and a third implies they will launder the funds specifically through Russian hosts who already have reviews on Airbnb.

JPMorgan busted for money laundering after accusing bitcoin of doing the same

The Swiss subsidiary of US bank JPMorgan Chase has been sanctioned by Switzerland’s financial regulator FINMA for money laundering and “seriously violating supervision laws,” according to the local weekly Handelszeitung.

The sanctions are reportedly related to breaches of due diligence in connection with money laundering standards. That literally means the Wall Street banking giant assisted in money laundering.

The ruling was reportedly issued on June 30, but the regulator did not make it known as JPMorgan has been actively trying to prevent the publication. The Federal Administrative Court has since dismissed an appeal by the bank.

It is two months since JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon slammed bitcoin, the world’s leading cryptocurrency, labeling it a fraud. According to Dimon, bitcoin could be useful “if you were a drug dealer or a murderer.”

Dimon also compared bitcoin to the 17th-century Dutch tulip mania bubble. At the time, the CEO predicted the eventual demise of the digital currency and pledged to fire any trader trading bitcoin for being stupid.

“A fiat currency is when a government says this is your legal tender, you have to give it and accept it, and of course the central bank can misuse it and inflate it. But what is the use case for bitcoin? You’re in Venezuela, North Korea, you’re a criminal. Great product!” he said during a news conference in Washington.

 

Bitcoin Scam Ends in Jail as Immigrant’s American Dream Fades

By: Erik Larson

A Florida software engineer who came to the U.S. from Ukraine as a teenager seeking the American dream was sentenced to 16 months in prison for his role in building an illegal bitcoin exchange — one that allegedly laundered money for a global hacking ring.

Yuri Lebedev, 39, was the technology guru behind Coin.mx, which tricked banks into processing bitcoin transactions by disguising them as restaurant-delivery charges and online purchases of collectible items. Lebedev was convicted in March of conspiracy and fraud following a monthlong trial in Manhattan.

U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan on Friday said Lebedev had abused his “impressive technology skills” to trick financial institutions, making them “unwilling participants in the scheme.”

 

Coin.mx was allegedly set up for use by a group of hackers who targeted financial and publishing firms including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Dow Jones & Co. in a series of attacks in 2014. Lebedev wasn’t accused of money laundering or involved in the hacking, but his role in operating the exchange was critical, prosecutors said.

Lebedev, wearing a black suit, stood before sentencing to say he regretted getting involved with Coin.mx. All he wanted to do, he said, was create “cutting edge technology” and build something “that would make me exceptional.”

“I got carried away,” Lebedev said, adding he realizes now “there are no shortcuts.”

Less Time

Nathan gave Lebedev considerably less time than the maximum of 10 years recommended by U.S. sentencing guidelines, finding he was neither a leader nor a mastermind, and noting he had no criminal history.

“He did what he was told to do,” Nathan said.

The man giving the orders was Coin.mx’s operator, Anthony Murgio, who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in June. He pleaded guilty in January and said he ran Coin.mx for the hacking scheme’s main Israeli architect, Gery Shalon, the self-described founder of a criminal enterprise that stunned Wall Street.

Prosecutors said the unregistered exchange sold bitcoins that were used in illegal online transactions and as payment in ransomware attacks. Lebedev’s role was to set up an array of servers that Coin.mx used to process its transactions, a critical element of the scheme that required constant attention to avoid detection by the banks, the U.S. said.

To help dodge regulators, Lebedev also conspired with his boss to bribe a New Jersey pastor to let them take over a credit union that was run out of a church, and use it to help legitimize the exchange’s operations. The scam eventually ruined the business, which is liquidating.

Better Life

It’s all a far cry from Lebedev’s goal of creating a better life for himself in the U.S., according to court papers. Born in Russia and raised in Ukraine, he was abandoned by his alcoholic father when he was 8 and raised by his scientist mother. After winning awards in biology, math and physics, he was selected to move to the U.S. as an exchange student at age 16.

“America has been given a genius from the Ukraine,” his math teacher said at the time, according to defense filings.

“Yuri, with his mother’s support, made the brave decision to move to the United States — without having a single relative or acquaintance in America — in order to improve his life,” his lawyer said.

Lebedev moved in with a host family in Georgia, according to court papers. After high school he double-majored in physics and computer science at Valdosta State University, and obtained post-graduate degrees including a Masters of Science and Physics from Florida State University, court papers show. He met his wife at college. They have three children.

Complex Web

Lebedev’s attorney, Eric Creizman, cited the wide-ranging nature of the scheme to portray his client as a husband and doting father who got caught up in something too big for him to recognize. In court papers, he described Lebedev as an “unlikely criminal defendant.”

But prosecutors used the idyllic life Lebedev had built against him in seeking a tough sentence, saying he wasn’t like criminals who needed money or had other such motivation to break the law.

“He basically could have ridden out the script for his life,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Won S. Shin said at the sentencing. People in Lebedev’s position “are even more culpable.”

Family and friends sent letters to the court supporting Lebedev, all of which described him as a man devoted to hard work and to his children. His host family said Lebedev tutored their child in math, while a college pal relayed how Lebedev washed dishes to avoid using a credit card for living expenses.

Shalon’s global network allegedly stole information on more than 100 million customers of banks and publishing firms and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit proceeds from pump-and-dump stock scams and online gambling.

Murgio operated the exchange with Lebedev from about 2013 to 2015 through a front company, the Collectables Club Private Member Association, which lists Murgio’s West Palm Beach address, court papers show. At Murgio’s sentencing hearing, he wept and said he’d “screwed up badly.”

The case is U.S. v. Murgio, 15-cr-00769, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

 

Bitcoin laundering suspect caught in US, Russia extradition spat

The two countries are fighting over where the Russian national should have his day in court.

By  for Zero Day

http://www.zdnet.com/article/bitcoin-launderer-suspect-caught-in-us-russia-extradition-spat/

Alexander Vinnik is a popular man, with both the United States and Russia fighting over which country has the right to charge the suspected Bitcoin laundering mastermind.

Vinnik, a 38-year-old Russian national, is at the heart of the fight as the suspected leader of a Bitcoin laundering scheme.

In July, Vinnik was arrested by US law enforcement for allegedly being involved in BTC-e, a cryptocurrency exchange platform which “washed” funds without taking customer information, allowing for laundering to take place.

According to US prosecutors, Vinnik owned a number of accounts on the platform and used them to launder cash — and may have also been involved in laundering Bitcoin received from the “hack” of now-defunct exchange platform Mt. Gox, as well as Tradehill, another dead exchange.

In total, the Bitcoin laundering scheme is believed to have laundered roughly $4 billion.

Mt. Gox was once a thriving Bitcoin exchange, but after its sudden collapse in 2014, investors lost roughly $375 million. Former CEO Mark Karpeles originally blamed the closure on unknown cyberattackers, but Japanese law enforcement is charging him with embezzlement.

It is believed that Vinnik not only funneled proceeds from Mt. Gox but has also been involved in identity theft and drug trafficking schemes.

US law enforcement wants to charge Vinnik on American soil with operating an unlicensed money service business, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering, and engaging in unlawful monetary transactions.

If convicted, Vinnik could face up to 55 years behind bars.

The Russian national is currently being held in Greece, and a local court in Thessaloniki ruled on Wednesday that the United States is permitted to extradite him to face these charges.

However, the Russian government is not impressed with the Greek court’s decision.

On Friday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the verdict was “unjust and a violation of international law.”

The ministry believes that as Vinnik is a Russian national, he should be prosecuted in his home country and this should overrule any other extradition requests. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office requested an extradition order to Russia, but it appears this request has been ignored by the Greek authorities.

“Based on legal precedent, the Russian request should take priority as Mr. Vinnik is a citizen of Russia,” the ministry said. “The verdict is even more surprising in the context of the atmosphere of friendly relations between Russia and Greece.”

Vinnik has denied the charges but has agreed to be sent back to Russia, according to the Reuters news agency.

However, Vinnik’s legal team have appealed the ruling, and now the Russian national’s case will be considered by the Supreme Civil and Criminal Court of Greece, before being submitted to the Greek Minister of Justice for approval.

“We hope the Greek authorities will consider the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office request, and Russia’s reasoning, and act in strict compliance with international law,” the ministry says.

ZDNet has reached out to the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and will update if we hear back.