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Securing the Weakest Link U.S. Government’s Cryptocurrency Tracing Capacity on Full Display in Civil Forfeiture Action

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a civil forfeiture complaint detailing two hacks of virtual currency exchanges by North Korean actors.  These actors stole millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency or other digital assets and ultimately laundered the funds through Chinese and other over-the-counter (“OTC”) cryptocurrency traders.[1]  The complaint filed in United States Federal Court in the District of Columbia identified 280 accounts that were used to launder the stolen assets.   

The complaint details two related hacks of digital assets allegedly orchestrated by North Korea.  In the summer of 2019, a virtual currency exchange was hacked by an actor tied to North Korea, who stole over $250 million worth of alternative cryptocurrencies and tokens, including Proton Tokens, PlayGame tokens, and IHT Real Estate Protocol tokens.  The funds were laundered over several months through multiple intermediary addresses and other virtual currency exchanges in a process known as “chain-hopping.” In an effort to obfuscate the transaction path, the defendants converted the traceable cryptocurrency into Bitcoin, Tether, or other forms of cryptocurrency that are more difficult to trace.  Despite the sophisticated laundering techniques used, law enforcement was able to trace the illicit transactions.

The second hack, which involved a U.S. based company (possibly an investment fund) focused on the Algorand blockchain, occurred in September 2019. In this instance, the North Korea associated hacker gained access to the virtual currency wallets, held by the company on other platforms, and digital assets held by the company’s partners. The hacker stole nearly $2.5 million and laundered it through more than 100 different accounts at another virtual currency exchange. The funds from both of the hacks were allegedly laundered by the same group of Chinese OTC actors. 

DOJ’s announcement last month reveals two noteworthy developments in this type of investigations: U.S. Cyber Command will now be a player in similar investigations and the Cryptocurrency Strike Force’s expertise and skill in tracing and seizing virtual currency are beyond what criminals previously thought possible.  This case is the most recent example of the U.S. government’s use of sophisticated tracking tools to identify and take action against parties that are using blockchain technology for nefarious purposes.

These cases serve as good reminders of the old adage that you are “only as strong as your weakest link,” which is particularly true of blockchain technology. Even if a blockchain has perfect internal security the data, and the value tied to that data, can be stolen by hacking an exchange, which has often been a weak point of digital asset security. Exchanges and other “off chain” transactions, such as personal wallets in the case of the second hack, are proving to be the Achilles heel of blockchain networks.


[1] In cryptocurrency markets, over-the-counter trades are also facilitated by OTC brokers who negotiate directly with the buyer and seller. The OTC broker finds buyers and sellers for a trade. OTC trades are thought to offer greater liquidity and increased anonymity. 

© Polsinelli PC, Polsinelli LLP in CaliforniaNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 259


About this Author

Melissa S. Ho Shareholder Phoenix Antitrust, Antitrust - Health Care Compliance, Fraud and Abuse, Stark, Financial and Securities Litigation, Financial Technology, Regulation Government Investigations, Health Care Litigation

Melissa Ho is a trial attorney with a detailed understanding of government regulations and business litigation. A former prosecutor, she is sympathetic to the disruption and chaos a government inquiry and criminal investigation can cause. 

Melissa defends individual clients against a wide variety of criminal allegations, including health care fraud, qui tam, RICO violations, bank fraud, real estate fraud, mortgage fraud, foreign corrupt practices, securities fraud, water and air quality violations, government corruption, procurement and public fraud, professional misconduct, civil...


Richard Levin brings his experience as a senior legal and compliance officer on Wall Street and in London to bear in advising clients on corporate, securities and regulatory issues. A problem-solver by nature, his practice focuses on helping financial services and technology (FinTech) clients identify and address regulatory issues as they build their businesses.  

The FinTech sector is experiencing rapid changes that are producing innovative new technologies: digital currencies, blockchain technology, peer to peer lending, robo advisors, crowdfunding portals, and electronic trading platforms. These changes are challenging early stage companies and established financial services firms to understand the legal and regulatory issues associated with the development of these innovative technologies. Polsinelli is at the vanguard of these changes.

Andrew T. Fox Phoenix Polsinelli Government Investigations Labor and Employment Commercial Litigation Litigation and Dispute Resolution

As a member of Polsinelli’s Government Investigations practice, Andrew assists clients in all aspects of white collar criminal defense and internal corporate investigations. Working to understand each client’s unique situation, he helps guide clients through government inquiries and provides counsel that aligns to their business strategies. Andrew has experience drafting briefs, memoranda and responding to discovery requests.

Prior to joining Polsinelli, Andrew served as a law clerk to The Honorable Judge Douglas L. Rayes on the United States District Court for the District of...

Stephen A. Rutenberg Shareholder Polsinelli New York Bankruptcy and Financial Restructuring Bankruptcy Litigation Capital Markets ,Commercial Lending ,Debt and Claims Trading, Financial Services, Insolvency, Financial Technology FinTech and Regulation

Stephen Rutenberg’s practice focuses on the intersection of special situations investing and FinTech including cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. 

A significant component of Stephen’s practice relates to his work in the distressed debt market, representing clients in the purchase and sale of loans and securities of distressed and bankrupt companies. Recent representations include advising on the purchase, sale and financing of bankruptcy trade claims in several major chapter 11 cases, including Lehman Brothers, and the MF Global and Icelandic bank liquidations. He works with...