US seizes $3.6 billion stolen in 2016 Bitfinex cryptoexchange hack

The US Department of Justice announced that law enforcement seized billions worth of cryptocurrency linked to the 2016 Bitfinex cryptocurrency exchange hack.

A Manhattan couple, Ilya Lichtenstein, 34, and his wife, Heather Morgan, 31, were arrested today for allegedly being involved in a conspiracy to launder the stolen cryptocurrency.

In 2016, the 119,756 bitcoins stolen during the attack were worth almost $78 million and are now valued at roughly $4.5 billion.

DOJ officials said the funds were recovered after IRS-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) special agents executed “court-authorized search warrants of online accounts controlled by Lichtenstein and Morgan” to seize files containing private keys required to access the wallets that received the stolen Bitfinex bitcoins.

“Those files contained the private keys required to access the digital wallet that directly received the funds stolen from Bitfinex, and allowed special agents to lawfully seize and recover more than 94,000 bitcoin that had been stolen from Bitfinex. The recovered bitcoin was valued at over $3.6 billion at the time of seizure,” DOJ said.

“Today’s arrests, and the department’s largest financial seizure ever, show that cryptocurrency is not a safe haven for criminals,” added Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco.

Largest cryptocurrency seizure ever

According to Chief Jim Lee of IRS-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI), this was the largest cryptocurrency seizure ever made by DOJ.

“IRS-CI Cyber Crimes Unit special agents have once again unraveled a sophisticated laundering technique, enabling them to trace, access and seize the stolen funds, which has amounted to the largest cryptocurrency seizure to date, valued at more than $3.6 billion,” Lee said.

The defendants allegedly attempted to launder the stolen cryptocurrency by making deposits on the AlphaBay dark web marketplace, as well as buying gift cards from Uber, Hotels.com, PlayStation, and Walmart.

Court documents show that the couple allegedly used sophisticated laundering techniques, including:

  • using fictitious identities to set up online accounts;
  • utilizing computer programs to automate transactions, a laundering technique that allows for many transactions to take place in a short period of time;
  • depositing the stolen funds into accounts at a variety of virtual currency exchanges and darknet markets and then withdrawing the funds, which obfuscates the trail of the transaction history by breaking up the fund flow;
  • converting bitcoin to other forms of virtual currency, including anonymity-enhanced virtual currency (AEC), in a practice known as “chain hopping”;
  • and using U.S.-based business accounts to legitimize their banking activity.

More info on how the stolen Bitfinex funds were traced and were moved to accounts linked to the two defendants can be found in this statement of facts released today by DOJ.

Lichtenstein and Morgan were charged today with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which comes with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and conspiracy to defraud the USA, which also carries a maximum sentence of five years.