Europol: Bitcoin May Become Sole Currency for EU Cybercriminals

Europol has said in a new report that it believes bitcoin could become the go-to currency for digital criminals in the region.

AccessTimeIconSep 30, 2015 at 10:35 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 11:54 a.m. UTC

Europol has said in a new report that it believes bitcoin could become the go-to currency for digital criminals in the region.

The European Union's top law enforcement agency released its Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment for 2015 on 30th September, outlining its view of the top cybercrime threats facing the European Union.

The report focuses on the topic of bitcoin and digital currencies in a number of contexts, including the state of criminal financing and specific elements of illicit activity involving the technology.

Europol said that, according to its data, bitcoin accounts for as much as 40% of criminal-to-criminal payments online, with PayPal accounting for 25% of those reported. The figures build on previous statements from the agency regarding cryptocurrencies as a key factor in the development of the so-called "crime-as-a-service" ecosystem.

The agency noted in its new report:

"Although there is no single common currency used by cybercriminals across the EU, it is apparent that bitcoin may gradually be taking on that role. Bitcoin features as a common payment mechanism across almost all payment scenarios, a trend which can only be expected to increase."

OpenBazaar seen as threat

The report includes a section on the progression of law enforcement activities surrounding dark marketplaces, noting developments in the ecosystem since Operation Onymous, a November 2014 operation that resulted in the shuttering of Silk Road 2.0 and a number of other illicit sites.

Europol, pointing to that effort as "a message" to cybercriminals, acknowledged in the report that "hidden services continue to grow, multiply and evolve" despite the crackdowns.

As part of a look at future threats regarding dark markets, Europol identified OpenBazaar as an area of concern for law enforcement officials due to its peer-to-peer nature.

"As the 'market' is peer-to-peer, there would be no website or server to be targeted by investigating law enforcement and intervention is a considerable challenge, mirroring the issues law enforcement currently has with investigations involving bitcoin," the report noted, adding:

"Payments on the OpenBazaar use a multi-signature approach involving a third-party ‘notary’ to control the release of funds. This means that there is no possibility of performing an exit scam with customers’ and vendors’ funds."

The report recommended that law enforcement officials work “to pursue investigative and research opportunities related to emerging technologies such as decentralised marketplaces like OpenBazaar” in conjunction with the private sector and applicable academic sources.

Regulatory effectiveness questioned

The report's authors cast doubt on the effectiveness of regulation being developed by both EU-level bodies as well as countries within the region.

The Europol report stated:

"Any regulation of cryptocurrencies would likely only be applicable and enforceable when applied to identifiable users such as those providing exchange services. The inability to attribute transactions to end users makes it difficult to imagine how any regulation could be enforced for everyday users."

It further added that "it is clear that cybercriminals will continue to use whichever payment mechanism is convenient, familiar or perceived to be safe, including those that are already regulated and maintain anti-money laundering controls".

Europol went on to encourage broader cooperation between law enforcement agencies on digital currencies, and further suggested that agencies "monitor the alternate payment community" for further intelligence into payment mechanisms.

The full 2015 Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment can be found below:

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