FBI Eyes Ransomware Profits with New Cryptocurrency Crimes Unit

FBI Eyes Ransomware Profits with New Cryptocurrency Crimes Unit

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States is forming a new team to investigate cryptocurrency-related crimes and ransomware earnings. During a speech at the Munich Cyber Security Conference this week, US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco announced the formation of the Virtual Asset Exploitation Team (VAXU), saying the unit will help the US government keep up with “threat actors who exploit innovations as fast as the marketplace produces them.”

Monaco went on to say that this includes “the growth of ransomware and the exploitation of bitcoin,” saying that the FBI is now tracking over 100 different malware versions. According to Chainalysis, scammers stole over $7.7 billion in cryptocurrencies from victims worldwide in 2021, an increase of 80% over the previous year. The FBI’s VAXU team will bring together cryptocurrency experts, blockchain analysts, and virtual asset seizure specialists in one location to conduct investigations and teach other FBI agents. The specialist team will be part of the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (NCET), which is a division of the United States Department of Justice.

In late-2021, the Justice Department was established to investigate the unlawful use of digital assets, with a particular focus on virtual cryptocurrency exchanges and other technology that enable or promote cryptocurrency misuse. “Ransomware and digital extortion, like many other cryptocurrency-fueled crimes, work only if the bad guys get paid, which means we have to disrupt their economic model,” Monaco said. 

“While the currency is virtual, the message to businesses is clear: if you report to us, we can track the money and not just assist you, but also hopefully avoid the next victim.” This week, Monaco also announced that Eun Young Choi, a federal prosecutor with experience prosecuting cybercriminals, had been named the NCET’s inaugural director.

“As the technology underlying digital assets grows and advances, the NCET will play a critical role in ensuring that the department accelerates and expands its efforts to prevent their illegitimate usage by criminals of all kinds,” Choi added. The announcement comes just weeks after the Department of Justice took over 94,000 bitcoins worth $3.6 billion that were allegedly stolen in the 2016 breach of cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex, marking the department’s “biggest ever” financial seizure.