Department of Justice Launches a Cryptocurrency Crime Unit

The U.S. Department of Justice has formed the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (NCET) to investigate the use of cryptocurrency for criminal purposes. The new unit will examine cases involving virtual currency exchanges and money laundering. Members will also investigate so-called “mixing and tumbling” services, which involve charging a fee to send cryptocurrency to an address while obscuring the source of funds. The group, which include experts from the offices of U.S. Attorneys, will also work on tracing and recovery of assets lost to fraud, hacking or ransomware extortion.

The DOJ’s announcement says the team will combine the skills of money laundering and asset recovery with the expertise of the computer crime and intellectual property sections, Engadget reports.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General for the criminal division Kenneth Polite will supervise the group, though the Justice Department is underway with a search for a leader who will report to Polite. The DOJ is seeking to fill the role with someone experienced in handling complex criminal investigations and prosecutions, with knowledge of the technology behind cryptocurrencies and blockchain.

“The Criminal Division is already an established leader in investigating and prosecuting the criminal misuse of cryptocurrency,” Polite said in a DOJ statement announcing the expansion. “The creation of this team will build on this leadership by combining and coordinating expertise across the Division in this continuously evolving field.”

Because cryptocurrency is used in criminal activity, from ransomware payments to being the preferred means of exchange of value on “dark markets” for illegal drugs, weapons, malware and other hacking tools, the NCET will foster the development of expertise in cryptocurrency and blockchain across all aspects of the DOJ’s work.

The NCET will also play a critical support role for international, federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement authorities grappling with new technologies underlying criminal tradecraft. The group will seek to recover the illicit proceeds when possible.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement that the NCET will “draw on the Department’s cyber and money laundering expertise to strengthen our capacity to dismantle the financial entities that enable criminal actors to flourish — and quite frankly to profit — from abusing cryptocurrency platforms.” The rooting out of abuse aims in part to “ensure user confidence in these systems,” Monaco noted.

There has been an increase in cybercrime cases resulting in companies and industries held hostage in exchange for payment via cryptocurrency. The May attack on Colonial Pipeline caused fuel shortage in the East Coast, which led to President Biden signing an executive order for greater cooperation among federal agencies in solving such crimes.  More recently the Treasury Department hit the SUEX cryptocurrency exchange with sanctions for allegedly perpetrating attacks.

The Biden administration will later this month host a meeting with 30 countries to discuss the threat of ransomware attacks to global economy and national security, Engadget writes.