DOJ arrests couple in massive money laundering scheme


Sebmol | Wikimedia Commons

Meshal Muhammad

Ilya Lichtenstein 34 and Heather Morgan were arrested in Manhattan on Feb. 8 by the Department of Justice for an alleged conspiracy to launder stolen cryptocurrency.

The money was stolen from Bitfinex, a Hong Kong-based virtual currency exchange, in 2016. At the time, the total amount was valued at $70 million in Bitcoin. It is currently worth $4.5 billion in Bitcoin.

“Today’s arrests, and the department’s largest financial seizure ever, show that cryptocurrency is not a safe haven for criminals,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a DOJ press release.

The couple marketed themselves as “veteran tech and crypto entrepreneurs.” They worked together to cofound a venture capital firm, Demandpath, a cryptocurrency wallet, Endpass and a marketing firm, Salesfork.

Lichtenstein described himself in his LinkedIn profile as a “tech entrepreneur, coder and investor” who is interested in blockchain technology, while his Medium profile adds that he is “an occasional magician.”

Morgan described herself in her Forbes profile as an “international economist, serial entrepreneur specializing and investor in B2B software companies”  who also enjoys “rapping and designing streetwear fashion.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Maggie Lynaugh shared that the public inalterable ledger that recorded the Bitcoin transaction was vital in the DOJ’s investigation, which they followed for five years. The couple used the stolen money to purchase a vitality of material goods and assets, such as gold, NFTs and Walmart gift cards.

In a search of the couple’s Manhattan apartment, federal agents found burner phones that contained electronic files, one with the laundered money and another with information on how to obtain passports from the dark web.

The federal government has still to retrieve $330 million-worth of laundered Bitcoin, which it believes the couple has knowledge about. Matthew Graves, a U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said that the laundered money moved through a major darknet exchange that has been linked to multiple crimes and several cryptocurrency addresses linked to child sexual abuse material.

The couple reportedly conspired to launder proceeds of nearly $120,000 in Bitcoin using “sophisticated laundering techniques” by using fake IDs and utilizing computer programs to process multiple transactions together at a faster speed. They also deposited the laundered money into various accounts at different virtual currency exchanges and darknet markets and later withdrew those funds.

They obscured the trail of the transactions by breaking up the flow of the money and converting the Bitcoin into other currencies, including anonymity-enhanced virtual currency in a process known  as “chain hopping.” The couple also used U.S.-based business accounts to legitimize their banking activity.

“As the anarchists and idealists will soon learn the decentralized nature of Bitcoin won’t make a difference if anyone transmitting it is in violation of federal law,” Lichtenstein wrote in an online forum post in 2013.

Nine years later, he was arrested for the same reason he warned about. Following a Feb. 14 court appearance, Lichtenstein will be jailed while Morgan will be set free.

Bitcoin has gained attraction over the past decade due to its decentralized nature, but it is impossible to ignore the regulatory hold that the federal government has on cryptocurrency exchanges through which individuals buy and sell cryptocurrency.