In what is being called the biggest-ever cryptocurrency theft, the U.S. Justice Department on 8th February 2022 said that it has seized a whopping $4.5 billion in bitcoin from a couple who has allegedly washed the illegal proceeds linked to the 2016 hack of the cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex resulting in the arrest of the duo on money laundering charges.
Prosecutors said New Yorkers Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein, 34, and his wife, Heather Morgan, 31, splurge the stolen money on items ranging from gold and non-fungible tokens to even a $500 Walmart gift card, prosecutors said.
Calling it as the Justice Department’s “biggest financial seizure”, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said, it shows cryptocurrency is “not a safe haven for criminals.”
Lichtenstein and Morgan face charges of conspiring to commit money laundering as well as to defraud the United States. The case was filed in a federal court in Washington, D.C.
How did the US D.O.J unearth the biggest cryptocurrency heist?
As per sources, the pair is accused of conspiring to launder 119,754 bitcoin stolen after a hacker gained illegal access into Bitfinex and initiated more than 2,000 unauthorized transactions. Justice Department officials said the value of the transactions at the time of the incident stood at $71 million in bitcoin, but with the rise in the currency’s value, the value now is at a staggering $4.5 billion.
That being said, a crucial clue that led to the case might have come from the 2017 bust of an underground digital market that used to launder a portion of the funds. U.S. officials said some of the money was transferred to AlphaBay, a version of eBay hosted on the dark web.
When the site was taken down, it likely led authorities to access AlphaBay’s internal transaction logs and linked them to a cryptocurrency account in Lichtenstein’s name, according to digital assets tracking firm Elliptic.
Bitfinex released a statement stating it was working with the Department of Justice to “establish our rights to a return of the stolen bitcoin.”
As for the two accused, they would both be kept on house arrest, with electronic monitoring, and will be barred from engaging in cryptocurrency transactions pending trial.