UK detectives make record £180 million cryptocurrency seizure

Operation against suspected money laundering network comes as former surveillance chief warns of surge in ransomware demands

Police seized £180 million of unspecified cryptocurrencies, the largest of its kind in Britain. Reuters
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Detectives have made the UK’s largest cryptocurrency seizure worth nearly £180 million ($249m) during an investigation into an international money laundering ring.

It was connected to the seizure last month of cryptocurrencies worth £114 million – the previous record – by the same London force.

The Metropolitan Police declined to say which currency was seized and how the funds were believed to have been accrued. A woman, 39, has been arrested and bailed in connection with both seizures.

Graham McNulty, a senior police officer at the Metropolitan Police, said: “While cash still remains king in the criminal word, as digital platforms develop we’re increasingly seeing organised criminals using cryptocurrency to launder their dirty money.”

The seizures come amid heightened concerns over an explosion in cybercrime during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly a form targeting businesses known as ransomware.

Ransomware blocks organisations’ access to vital files until they pay a fee to criminals to unlock them – usually in Bitcoin because of the difficulty in tracing ownership and the money trail.

The scale of the demands have rocketed with companies on the hook for tens of millions of pounds even after negotiating with criminal gangs, according to a former head of the UK’s surveillance agency GCHQ.

Robert Hannigan, who led the agency from 2014 to 2017, told a cybersecurity conference on Tuesday that large companies were prepared to pay up because the cost of disruption far outstripped the cost of the ransom.

There has been a small tidal wave of ransomware over the past 18 months
Robert Hannigan

“There has been a small tidal wave of ransomware over the past 18 months,” he told the online Infosecurity Europe conference. “It was there long before the pandemic but it’s certainly on steroids now across every continent.

“The big change even in the last five years has been the scale of the ransomware demands,” said the cybersecurity expert.

“I regularly deal now with cases where the demands are in the tens of millions and even after a negotiation they are still in the tens of millions, maybe the lower tens.

“But these are very significant amounts of money and everybody is uncomfortable about this money being shovelled into the criminal world.”

A former head of Britain’s cyber intelligence unit said companies should be banned by law from paying ransoms to criminal gangs that attack their computer systems.

Ciaran Martin, formerly chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre, said the battle between authorities and gangs was heavily weighted in favour of the criminals, who were securing high returns for ransomware attacks with little risk.

The global cost of ransomware damage is expected to hit $20 billion this year and reach $265 billion by 2031, according to researcher and publisher Cybersecurity Ventures.

The criminal market is believed to be dominated by gangs from Russia who are out of reach of US law enforcement.

Mr Hannigan said the coding of ransomware meant it would not affect machines in some 16 countries, including many in the Russian sphere of influence. He said the gangs were not necessarily state-run operations but some countries were “tolerating and sometimes benefitting” from the tidal wave of attacks.

“That needs to change, the cost of doing this has to rise for those states before anything is going to get much better,” he said.

Updated: July 13, 2021, 1:21 PM