Thieves are targeting digital currency investors on the street in a wave of “cryptographic assaults,” police have warned, and victims report thousands of pounds stolen after the seizure of their mobile phones.
Reports of anonymous crimes provided to the Guardian by London City Police as part of a request for freedom of information reveal that criminals are combining physical muscle with digital knowledge to separate people from their cryptocurrency.
One victim reported that she was trying to order an Uber near London’s Liverpool Street station when robbers forced her to hand over the phone. While the gang finally returned the phone, the victim later found out that 5,000 pounds of Ethereum digital currency were missing from his account with the cryptocurrency investment platform Coinbase.
Otherwise, a man was approached by a group of people offering to sell him cocaine and agreed to go down a street with them to make the deal. The men offered to type in a number on their phone, but instead accessed their cryptocurrency account, holding it against a wall and forcing them to unlock a face-checking smartphone app. They transferred 6,000 pounds of ripple, another digital currency, out of their account.
A third victim said he was vomiting under a bridge when a robber forced him to unlock his phone with a fingerprint, then changed his security settings and stole £ 28,700, including the cryptocurrency.
In another case, a victim told police that his cards and phone were stolen after a night at the pub, with £ 10,000 later stolen from his account with the investment platform Crypto.com. The victim was using his phone at the pub and believed the thieves saw him enter his account PIN, according to the report.
“It’s a kind of cryptocurrency robbery,” said David Gerard, author of Attack on the 50 Foot Blockchain, a book about digital currencies.
Cryptocurrency transfers are irreversible, unlike a bank transfer, which makes this type of crime more attractive to thieves.
“If I am robbed and forced to make a bank transfer, the bank can track where the money went and there are all sorts of ups and downs. You can reverse the transaction.
“With crypto, if I transfer it to my cryptocurrency wallet, I have your coins and you can’t get them back.”
He said the risks have been exacerbated by the way some people handle their investments in smartphones, without exercising the same degree of caution they would with cash. “People keep stupid amounts of money in the crypto account. They don’t think it’s money somehow.”
Gurvais Grigg, a 23-year veteran of the FBI, now works as Chainalysis’s director of public sector technology, helping government agencies and financial institutions track digital currency movements.
He said the nature of the cryptocurrency, where transactions are recorded in the blockchain, meant the police should, in theory, be able to track down stolen cryptocurrencies.
“It simply came to our notice then [transfer stolen assets], have to provide a wallet address, and will most likely use that wallet address again in the future. You must also bring it to an exchange if you want to convert it into fiat currency.
He said this has created a digital paper trail that researchers can use, and routinely do, to track multi-million dollar cryptocurrencies. However, he said they were less likely to have the resources to prosecute minor and one-off crimes.
“An individual theft of a small amount may not get the attention of the police or a large law enforcement agency.
“If they could put together a conspiracy of greater activity, where people do it more than once or twice, the police services would probably pay attention.”
Cryptocurrency robberies took place in the second half of 2021, in the relatively small part of the financial district of London patrolled by London City police.
The incidents are not the first in which people have been forced to hand over cryptocurrency with the threat of violence.
A Kent student claimed last year that eight people had robbed his university accommodation and forced him to transfer £ 68,000 of bitcoin at the tip of a knife.
Later that year, U.S. tech businessman Zaryn Dentzel told police he had been attacked at his home in Madrid by masked thieves. He said he was tortured with a knife and a stun gun before disappearing with millions of euros in bitcoins.
However, the nature of the crimes reported in London last year – seemingly opportunistic incidents on the street resembling a robbery of cash or valuables – is posing new challenges for police.
Phil Ariss, who leads the National Police Council’s Chiefs of Cybercrime cryptocurrency team, said more training was being given to police officers on a variety of cryptocurrency-related crimes.
He said police were also looking for ways to inform the public about the need to be cautious when accessing a cryptographic account.
“You wouldn’t walk down the street with 50-pound bills and counting them. That should apply to people with cryptocurrencies,” he said.