Bitcoin is losing its luster with some of its earliest and most avid fans — criminals — giving rise to a new breed of virtual currency.
The European Union’s law-enforcement agency, Europol, raised alarms three months ago, writing in a report that “other cryptocurrencies such as monero, ethereum and Zcash are gaining popularity within the digital underground.” Online extortionists, who use ransomware to lock victims’ computers until they fork over a payment, have begun demanding those currencies instead. On Dec. 18 hackers attacked up to 190,000 WordPress sites per hour to get them to produce monero, according to security company Wordfence.
In monero’s case, criminals are snapping it up because bitcoin’s underlying technology can work against them. Called blockchain, the digital ledger meticulously records which addresses send and receive transactions, including the exact time and amount — great data to use as evidence. Match an address to a crime and then watch the bitcoin universe carefully, and you can see the funds disappear and reappear in other locations.
Sleuths have developed databases and techniques for digesting that information to eventually nab wrongdoers. Say, for example, a coffee shop in Berkeley is known to have a certain bitcoin address, and a wallet used by an extortionist transfers the same amount there every morning at 9 a.m. Police can stop by and make an arrest.
Started in 2014, monero is very different. It encrypts the recipient’s address on its blockchain and generates fake addresses to obscure the real sender. It also obscures the amount of the transaction.
The techniques are so potent that software that flags coins suspected of being obtained through crime now tags just about anything converted into or out of monero as high risk, according to Pawel Kuskowski, chief executive officer of Coinfirm, which helps exchanges and other companies avoid tainted money. That compares with only about 10 percent of bitcoin, he said.
“What we treat ‘high risk’ is something that’s anonymizing funds,” he said in a phone interview. “How are you going to prove that these funds are not coming from illegal sources?”