On 16 and 17 June, over 70 law enforcement officials from 21 countries gathered at Europol's headquarters in The Hague to coordinate investigations into the criminal exploitation of virtual currencies, including Bitcoin. The meeting was co-organised by the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) hosted at Europol and ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the primary investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The group of financial and cybercrime investigators, as well as prosecutors, discussed ongoing worldwide criminal cases, involving the criminal use of virtual currencies to purchase, among other items, narcotics and contraband online. Participants at this first- ever international meeting of law enforcement on the criminal exploitation of virtual currencies voiced concerns over the anonymity of financial transactions through some virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, and the challenges this poses to 'following the money' during criminal investigations.
The meeting also addressed the development of Bitcoin ATMs and the growing number of merchants accepting virtual currencies - now estimated at 26 000 - that could continue to expose virtual currencies to abuse by criminal networks. Ongoing criminal cases involving virtual currencies, which are currently allegations contained in pending criminal charges, include the virtual currency Liberty Reserve, which is alleged to have conducted 55 million illicit transactions and laundered up to USD 6 billion in criminal proceeds. Also noted was pending charges against the administrator of the online marketplace Silk Road, who was arrested by U.S. law enforcement after allegedly accepting up to 9.5 million bitcoins for the sale of hundreds of kilogrammes of illegal narcotics and other contraband. Investigators also revealed the use of bitcoins in the alleged online sale of a toxic substance purportedly for use in a homicide.
ICE HSI Deputy Assistant Director, Mark Witzal, opened the two-day meeting by speaking about the globalisation of virtual currencies and the corresponding need for international collaboration and coordination. "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."
Olivier Burgersdijk, Head of Strategy at EC3, emphasised how shifting the focus of law enforcement towards the dynamics of virtual payment schemes is essential to fight organised crime effectively in the future. "The financial trail is traditionally one of the best ways to find the criminals, in particular to reach the top targets," he said.
The participants pledged cooperation and continued information sharing on the developments of the criminal use of virtual currencies.
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