US Officials Arrest Alleged Operator of $336M Bitcoin Mixing Service

Roman Sterlingov faces three charges: unlicensed money transmission, money laundering and money laundering without a license.

Apr 27, 2021 at 11:38 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:47 p.m. UTC

U.S. officials have arrested the alleged operator of a bitcoin mixing service on allegations of laundering nearly $336 million in bitcoin over 10 years.

According to public court documents, federal agents arrested Roman Sterlingov, a Russian and Swedish citizen, on three charges stemming from his alleged involvement with bitcoin mixing service Bitcoin Fog: unlicensed money transmission, money laundering and money transmission without a license.

While the U.S. government hasn't gone after many bitcoin mixing services before, prosecutors have called such services "a crime" in the past.

Bitcoin Fog allows its customers to transfer bitcoin to each other while obfuscating where the coins are being sent from, according to an affidavit filed by Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Special Agent Devon Beckett. The service was launched in 2011 and has allegedly been used to transfer some 1.2 million BTC ($335.8 million based on their value when the transactions occurred). Customers apparently sent bitcoin from Silk Road, Evolution, AlphaBay, Agora and Silk Road 2.0.

Bitcoin stolen from exchanges through hacks also went through Bitcoin Fog, the affidavit claimed. However, Bitcoin Fog is not a Financial Crimes Enforcement Network-registered money services business, and was not licensed to operate within Washington, D.C..

Federal agents used blockchain analysis to determine the 1.2 million figure, as well as some of the sources for these funds, the document said.

"While the identity of a Bitcoin address owner is generally anonymous (unless the owner opts to make the information publicly available), law enforcement can often identify the owner of a particular Bitcoin address by analyzing the blockchain," Beckett said in his affidavit.

An IRS agent conducted a transaction on Bitcoin Fog, finding that it was a successful mixing service. A second transaction that the IRS agent claimed was from a narcotics sale was also sent through the service.

"Analysis of bitcoin transactions, financial records, Internet service provider records, email records and additional investigative information, identifies Roman Sterlingov as the principal operator of Bitcoin Fog," Beckett said.

Investigators also allegedly tied Sterlingov to the Bitcoin Fog domain, using a payment made through Liberty Reserve. The investigators also tied Sterlingov to Mt. Gox accounts, which the defendant apparently logged into from the same IP addresses that were used for the Liberty Reserve account.

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