Articles Posted in Cyber Crime

An NFT, or Non-Fungible Token, is a digital asset representing ownership or proof of authenticity of a unique item or piece of content using blockchain technology. Unlike cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, which are fungible and can be exchanged on a one-to-one basis, NFTs are non-interchangeable and one-of-a-kind. As long as you’re following copyright laws and selling legitimate assets, creating, selling, and reselling NFTs is legal. However, due to the decentralized and anonymous nature of the crypto world, NFTs come with a host of legal issues. Like with most digital innovations, regulatory legislation has been slow to catch up and establish clear guidelines; still, wrongful use of NFTs can implicate an array of criminal charges.

Money Laundering refers to the illegal process of concealing the origins of money obtained through criminal activities, making it appear as if it comes from a legitimate source. This is criminalized under 18 U.S.C. § 1956. Money laundering using NFTs involves the illicit use of these digital assets to disguise the origins of illegally obtained funds. In this context, individuals create a fake record of sales on the blockchain by selling NFTs to themselves using different accounts. Once finished, they sell the NFT to an unsuspecting buyer and repeat the process.

Fraud has grown increasingly common in the crypto landscape due to its anonymous and decentralized nature. Fraud involving NFTs can manifest in various ways due to the unique characteristics of these digital assets. This is mostly being prosecuted as wire fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1343. Some common forms of fraud associated with NFTs include:

What is Bitcoin money laundering? Bitcoin money laundering is the process of using Bitcoin to conceal the origins of illegally obtained money. This can be done by transferring the Bitcoin to multiple accounts, mixing it with other Bitcoin, or using it to purchase goods or services.  Some believe that Bitcoin transactions are anonymous.  There are, however, transaction records that are stored in the blockchain and publicly visible.  The FBI recently stated “Criminals always leave tracks, and …[this] is a reminder that the FBI has the tools to follow the digital trail, wherever it may lead” .

Bitcoin is definitely attractive to money launderers because it is a decentralized currency that is not subject to government regulation. This makes it difficult, but not impossible, to track and trace Bitcoin transactions. Additionally, Bitcoin is often used in online transactions, which makes it easy to conceal the identity of the sender and receiver.

There are a number of ways to launder money using Bitcoin. One common method is to use a mixer, which is a service that mixes Bitcoin from multiple sources together. This makes it difficult to trace the original source of the Bitcoin. Another method is to use a tumbler, which is a service that breaks up Bitcoin transactions into smaller pieces and then reassembles them. This makes it difficult to track the individual transactions.

On May 17, 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the establishment of the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force.

On March 10, 2022, Garland announced Associate Deputy Attorney General Kevin Chambers as the Director For Covid-19 Fraud Enforcement.

In August, 2022, President Biden signed laws that give the Department of Justice and other federal agencies more time to investigate and prosecute Covid-19 fraud. It extended the statute of limitations for fraud charges involving PPP and EIDL fraud to ten years.

The International Bar Association created a “President’s Task force on Cybersecurity”.  Meg Strickler was appointed to serve on this prestigious task force and helped draft Cybersecurity Guidelines.  Today, it is all the more important to be weary of a data breach if you own and operate a small business. Data breaches can interrupt operations, cause chaos and most importantly impact the bottom line severely. Just this month, Atlanta based law firm Hall Booth Smith experienced a data breach.  Meg Strickler was quoted in the Fulton County Daily Report in discussing this breach, stating that the most important thing for law firms to do is educate their employees on how to stay safe online. One of the biggest issues she’s seen recently is data breaches resulting from Trojan emails, when employees click on links from unfamiliar senders. She also advised other precautionary measures, such as making sure bookkeepers don’t transfer money without protections in place and establishing safeguards to prevent disgruntled employees from internally dismantling a system.  Please see here for the full article.

So what to do to prepare?  Some obvious first steps are educating employees on cyber safety measures, making sure emails are encrypted, ensuring cyber insurance is up to date and becoming familiar with your company’s assets. You want to have a procedure and plan written ahead of time.

 

 

 

Here is the definition from the statute, cut directly from the 11th circuit’s jury instructions:

It’s a Federal crime to commit aggravated identity theft.

The Defendant can be found guilty of aggravated identity theft only if all the following facts are proved beyond a reasonable doubt:

Manhattan federal agents arrested Archegos Capital Management founder Sung Kook “Bill” Hwang on April 27, 2022 on fraud charges, roughly one year after the investment firm’s huge losses back in March 2021.  Department of Justice prosecutors are charging both Hwang and Patrick Halligan, the firm’s chief financial officer, with racketeering conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud offenses as part of schemes allegedly designed to “unlawfully manipulate” the price of publicly traded securities.

The 59-page indictment, filed in federal court in Manhattan, alleges the men and others at Archegos sometimes timed their trades to drum up the interest of other investors, while borrowing money to make bigger and bigger bets. The Department of Justice states, “Hwang and his co-conspirators invested in stocks mostly through special contracts with banks and brokers called “swaps.” As alleged, these swaps allowed Hwang to cause massive buying of certain stocks, including at carefully selected days and times, to artificially pump up stock prices. Hwang, Halligan, and their co-conspirators lied to banks and used a series of manipulative trading techniques to keep those prices high and prevent them from falling. The lies fed the inflation, and the inflation led to more lies. The scale of this alleged fraud was stunning.  In one year, Hwang turned a $1.5 billion portfolio and fraudulently pumped it up into a $35 billion portfolio.” The effective size of the firm’s stock positions swelled to $160 billion — rivaling some of the biggest hedge funds in the world.  The case marks the biggest financial-crime charges to come out of the Southern District of New York under the leadership of Mr. Damian Williams, who was sworn in October 10, 2021.

The SEC has also filed a civil complaint stating that Mr. Becker, the former chief risk officer at Archegos, and Mr. Tomita, the firm’s former top trader, had led discussions with the banks about the firm’s trading positions but that Mr. Hwang and Mr. Halligan had directed and set the tone for those discussions.

Attorney General Merrick Garland made recent comments about what he considered to be the Department of Justice’s top priorities for 2022.  Since taking office in March 2021, Garland has tried to combat crime in a tumultuous time.  He has been criticized for his handling of January 6 investigation and has stated it’s the most urgent probe in history.

With all of this going on, the US Attorney’s office increased its prosecutions of individuals of white collar crimes in the year 2021.  White collar charges like fraud, theft, corruption, bribery, environmental crime, tax fraud, health care fraud, procurement fraud, money laundering, PPP loan fraud, etc will continue to get more attention from the Department of Justice.

What does this mean?  It means that investigations of any sort need to be taken seriously and that you should contact a lawyer immediately if any wrongdoing is alleged.

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The IRS has just announced that Operation Hidden Treasure will seek to find taxpayers with unreported income from currency transactions.  Did you notice the new question on page 1 of the Tax Form 1040?  It states, “At any time during 2020 did you receive any financial interest in virtual currency?”  Last year this question was only on Schedule 1.

The IRS Criminal Investigation Division (“CID”) will look for typical “flags” in money transactions.  That may include “structuring” (transactions in increments of less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements), “the use of nominees, shell corps” (entities used solely for moving money around) or “getting on and off the chain.” (On chain transactions – blockchain is modified to reflect the transaction on a public ledger. Off chain transactions are those that that go off the blockchain.  They work by swapping private keys to an existing wallet instead of transferring funds.)

The IRS identifies and investigates these tax evasion flags.  Operation Hidden Treasure is “all about finding, tracing, and attributing crypto to U.S. Taxpayers.” Do not be fooled into thinking that since it’s cryptocurrency the government does not have the know how to investigate.   Charges for tax evasion, false information on a tax return or even money laundering or structuring can be forthcoming.  Call Conaway & Strickler, PC if you have had a friendly visit from an IRS CID Agent or if you think you might be facing some issues with the IRS.  Carolyn Schenck, national fraud counsel in the IRS Office of Chief Counsel states, “Operation Hidden Treasure is designed to find, trace and attribute such transactions to taxpayers. These transactions are not anonymous.  We see you.”

After the Hack: A Data Breach Post Game Show

As chair of the Cyber Crime committee at iTechlaw, Meg Strickler gives her insight on data breaches from various perspectives on an iTechlaw webinar this week.  She and the other panelists discuss:

  1. The criminal charge of BEC (Business email compromise) fraud
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