UK Police Seize £322m of Cryptocurrency in Past Five Years

UK police have seized cryptocurrency worth £322m over the past five years, according to official figures obtained by the New Scientist publication following a freedom of information (FoI) request.

The funds were taken during multiple criminal investigations over this period, highlighting how cryptocurrencies are increasingly used in illegal activity. This is primarily due to the challenges law enforcement face in seizing digital currencies compared to cash. One of these is that cryptocurrencies are often protected by strong encryption, which is impenetrable without a key. It is also difficult for law enforcement to seize cryptocurrency under existing legislation in the UK, even if there is suspicion it has been gained from criminal activity.

The £322m worth of funds were seized by 12 of the UK’s 48 police forces, although the true figure could be much higher because 15 forces reportedly did not respond to the New Scientist’s request. In addition, the UK’s National Crime Agency, which is exempt from FoI legislation, has not revealed how much cryptocurrency it has seized.

Almost all (99%) of the seized cryptocurrencies were Bitcoin, although small amounts of Ethereum, Dash, Monero and Zcash were also confiscated.

Commenting on the story, Jake Moore, former head of digital forensics at Dorset Police and global cybersecurity advisor at ESET, said: “Police forces have come so far in digital investigations, yet the final step of confiscation is simply too difficult to examine in many situations. The key design of cryptocurrencies is to keep them secure from interception from anyone, whether that be a threat actor or law enforcement, plus they were not intended to have a back door for any reason. This naturally causes a problem for police forces wanting to seize through the original procedures they are all used to with old-fashioned finances. In some cases, criminals may be locked up without giving away access to their funds, only to see huge returns on their release from jail.

“Digital investigations still remain in their infant phase and require far more resources to improve fighting this growing criminality. Cyber-criminals are very aware of the well-documented evasion tactics available but policing is improving at a rate that will slowly catch up in time. Deploying better surveillance techniques on known suspects, increasing intelligence and improving the profiling on those who are thought to be involved all helps build stronger evidence to recover and seize funds. However, the cost of this could potentially outweigh the amount that is recoverable in many cases.”

Last year, Europol revealed it had observed the proliferation of new money laundering techniques involving cyptocurrencies, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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