Cops Seize £300m Worth of Cryptocurrency in Money Laundering Raids

The hauls, made by police in London over the space of three weeks, represent some of the biggest ever global seizures of crypto assets by authorities.
Max Daly
London, GB
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Photo: Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

Police in London have seized almost £300 million worth of cryptocurrency as part of a record double swoop linked to money laundering by organised criminals. 

Detectives from the Metropolitan Police announced they had uncovered a £180 million haul of an as yet unknown cryptocurrency on Saturday. This comes just three weeks after the force seized £114 million of the pseudo-anonymous digital money.

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The seizures, “on the back of intelligence received about the transfer of criminal assets”, are the result of an ongoing international money laundering investigation by the Metropolitan Police’s economic crime unit. They represent some of the biggest hauls of crypto assets in the world. 

A 39-year-old woman was arrested on suspicion of money laundering offences after the £114 million haul was uncovered on the 24th of June, and was interviewed under caution in relation to the £180 million seizure.

“While cash still remains king in the criminal world, as digital platforms develop we’re increasingly seeing organised criminals using cryptocurrency to launder their dirty money,” said the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Graham McNulty.

Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are one of many methods now being used by criminal organisations to “wash” the proceeds of illegal business, such as drug trafficking, because its secretive nature means it is harder to police. But the evidence shows the use of cryptocurrencies to launder money is on the rise.

According to analysis by research group Chainalysis, the amount of crypto currency being laundered by criminals into cash had rocketed almost three fold in 12 months, from $1 billion in 2018 to $2.8 billion in 2019 (about £725 million to £2 billion). 

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In June, Britain’s financial watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), warned the cryptocurrency industry was failing to adhere to British anti-money laundering rules. The same month police in China arrested over 1,000 people suspected of using cryptocurrencies to launder illegal proceeds from telephone and internet scams.

Patrick Shortis, a cryptomarket expert at the University of Manchester, told VICE World News it is no surprise organised crime gangs are turning to crypto to clean up dirty money. 

“For criminal groups, cryptocurrencies present useful opportunities for laundering. They have high portability and provide multiple options to obfuscate the links between owner and the asset. We're still in the very early days of cryptocurrency regulation. As is often the case, the technology is outpacing our regulatory frameworks,” he said.

Shortis said launderers further cover their tracks by exchanging one crypto coin for another, reroute coins through multiple cryptocurrency wallets or anonymously purchase assets that they can then sell and convert back into cash. 

He said although the amount of money being laundered through cryptocurrencies is small when compared to how much is laundered through much older and well-tested methods such as offshore accounts and shell companies – it is on the rise. 

“We're only at the very start of this. Cryptocurrencies provide new opportunities, but both the criminals and the police have a steep learning curve in order to really understand how to either launder or investigate these new assets effectively.”