The US Justice Department said it seized more than $3.6 billion in allegedly stolen cryptocurrency linked to the 2016 hack of Bitfinex. As part of the operation, authorities detained a New York couple on allegations they planned to launder the digital goods.
It marks the agency’s largest financial seizure ever, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement.
Officials said they arrested Ilya Lichtenstein, 34, and his wife, Heather Morgan, 31. The couple is scheduled to make their initial appearances in federal court later in the day.
Authorities accuse the pair of trying to launder the proceeds of 119,754 BTC that were stolen from Bitfinex’s platform after a hacker breached Bitfinex’s systems and initiated more than 2,000 unauthorized transactions. Prosecutors allege that the transactions sent the stolen Bitcoin to Lichtenstein’s digital wallet.
The agency’s officials said they had seized more than 94,000 BTC, valued at about $3.6 billion at the time of the seizure. According to the agency, the total stolen Bitcoin is presently valued at approximately $4.5 billion.
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. said in a statement:
“Today, federal law enforcement demonstrates once again that we can follow money through the blockchain and that we will not allow cryptocurrency to be a safe haven for money laundering or a zone of lawlessness within our financial system.”
The pair is charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and conspiracy to defraud the United States, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The department did not announce charges for the actual hack of Bitfinex, and Justice Department officials declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation.
“This shows that even when sophisticated money laundering techniques are used, the indelible blockchain records usually allow law enforcement to link criminal activity to individuals,” Tom Robinson, co-founder of cryptocurrency analysis firm Elliptic, told CNN.
As the toll of ransomware and other hacks have grown on the economy, law enforcement agencies have looked more aggressively to track and seize the cryptocurrency, often used by criminal hackers. For example, US officials last year recovered $2.3 million of the $4.4 million in ransom that Colonial Pipeline paid to a Russian-speaking gang.