On February 8, 2022, the Department of Justice announced the seizure of a record $3.6 billion in stolen BTC it alleges was tied to the 2016 hack of Bitfinex, a virtual currency exchange.  A husband-wife duo, Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan of New York, New York were arrested the same day and charged via a criminal complaint with conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the United States.  Lichtenstein and Morgan are being held on $5 million and $3 million in bail, respectively, and will be on house arrest pending trial.

The Statement of Facts by the government in support of the criminal complaint filed against the defendants reveals a vast and complicated web of transactions that allegedly permitted Lichtenstein and Morgan to transfer approximately 25,000 of the 119,754 BTC stolen by hackers—valued at “only” $71 million at the time of the theft but now worth about $4.5 billion—to various virtual currency exchangers.  According to the Statement of Facts, the stolen BTC was shuttled to an unhosted wallet (i.e., a cryptocurrency wallet not controlled by a third-party but by the user) with over 2,000 BTC addresses, then to various accounts at the “darknet market AlphaBay,” later to a number of accounts at four different virtual currency exchangers, then to more unhosted BTC wallets, and finally to accounts at six more virtual currency exchangers where it was converted into fiat currency, gift cards, and precious metals.  The defendants further allegedly liquidated BTC through a BTC ATM and purchasing non-fungible tokens.

As if the sheer volume and layers of accounts was not enough, the duo allegedly:

  • Moved the funds in a “series of small amounts, totaling thousands of transactions”;
  • Used software to “automate transactions” which allowed for “many transactions to take place in a short period of time”;
  • “Layered” transactions by depositing and withdrawing the BTC through many accounts to obfuscate the trail, including through extensive layering activity that employed the “peel” chain technique; and
  • “Chain hopped” by converting BTC to anonymity-enhanced virtual currency to cut and disguise the blockchain trail.


Continue Reading  A Record $3.6 Billion Seizure and the Twisting Paths of Money Laundering in the Digital World

But AML Concerns Linger As To “High End” Art and NFTs

On February 4, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury published a study (the “Study”) on the facilitation of money laundering (“ML”) and terrorist financing (“TF”) through the trade in works of art.  The study was commissioned as a result of Section 6110(c) of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (the “Act”), which required Treasury to examine art market participants and sectors of the art market that may present ML/TF risks to the U.S. financial system, and examine what steps regulators might take to mitigate these risks.

According to the press release accompanying the Study, “[s]everal qualities inherent to high-value art – the way it is bought and sold and certain market participants – may make the high-value art market attractive for money laundering by criminals. These include the high dollar value of transactions, transportability of goods, a longstanding culture of privacy and use of intermediaries (e.g., shell companies and art advisors), and the increasing use of high-value art as an investment class.”  As we will discuss, the Study proposes four scenarios—two regulatory and two nonregulatory—to mitigate money laundering risks in the art industry. Ultimately, however, the Study concludes that, “[w]eighed against other sectors that pose ML/TF risks, . . . the art market should not be an immediate focus for the imposition of comprehensive AML/CFT requirements.” (emphasis added).  Accordingly, any ML/TF regulation of the art trade will not happen soon.

Ironically, dealers in antiquities – an industry dwarfed by the size of the global art market – are not so lucky, because Congress already has subjected them to anti-money laundering (“AML”) duties.  As we blogged, the Act amended the Bank Secrecy Act’s (“BSA”) definition of “financial institution” to include those “engaged in the trade of antiquities, including an advisor, consultant, or any other person who engages as a business in the solicitation or the sale of antiquities, subject to regulations prescribed by the [Treasury] Secretary.”  The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) still must issue implementing regulations for antiquities dealers.
Continue Reading  Treasury Report:  No Immediate Need for BSA Regulations for the Art Industry