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WASHINGTON — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) contributed to an investigation resulting in the arrest of two individuals this morning in Manhattan for an alleged conspiracy to launder cryptocurrency that was stolen during the 2016 hack of Bitfinex, a virtual currency exchange, presently valued at approximately $4.5 billion. Thus far, law enforcement has seized over $3.6 billion in cryptocurrency linked to that hack.
The investigation was led by HSI-New York, IRS-CI Washington, D.C. Field Office’s Cyber Crimes Unit and the FBI’s Chicago Field Office. The Ansbach Police Department in Germany provided assistance during this investigation.
Ilya Lichtenstein, 34, and his wife, Heather Morgan, 31, both of New York, New York, were scheduled to make their initial appearances in federal court today at 3:00 p.m. in Manhattan.
According to court documents, Lichtenstein and Morgan allegedly conspired to launder the proceeds of 119,754 bitcoin that were stolen from Bitfinex’s platform after a hacker breached Bitfinex’s systems and initiated more than 2,000 unauthorized transactions. Those unauthorized transactions sent the stolen bitcoin to a digital wallet under Lichtenstein’s control. Over the last five years, approximately 25,000 of those stolen bitcoin were transferred out of Lichtenstein’s wallet via a complicated money laundering process that ended with some of the stolen funds being deposited into financial accounts controlled by Lichtenstein and Morgan. The remainder of the stolen funds, comprising more than 94,000 bitcoin, remained in the wallet used to receive and store the illegal proceeds from the hack.
After the execution of court-authorized search warrants of online accounts controlled by Lichtenstein and Morgan, special agents obtained access to files within an online account controlled by Lichtenstein. Those files contained the private keys required to access the digital wallet that directly received the funds stolen from Bitfinex, and allowed special agents to lawfully seize and recover more than 94,000 bitcoin that had been stolen from Bitfinex. The recovered bitcoin was valued at over $3.6 billion at the time of seizure.
The criminal complaint alleges that Lichtenstein and Morgan employed numerous sophisticated laundering techniques, including using fictitious identities to set up online accounts; utilizing computer programs to automate transactions, a laundering technique that allows for many transactions to take place in a short period of time; depositing the stolen funds into accounts at a variety of virtual currency exchanges and darknet markets and then withdrawing the funds, which obfuscates the trail of the transaction history by breaking up the fund flow; converting bitcoin to other forms of virtual currency, including anonymity-enhanced virtual currency (AEC), in a practice known as “chain hopping”; and using U.S.-based business accounts to legitimize their banking activity.
Lichtenstein and Morgan are charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and conspiracy to defraud the United States, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Jessica Peck and C. Alden Pelker of the Justice Department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher B. Brown of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. Paralegal Specialists Angela De Falco and Brian Rickers and Legal Assistant Jessica McCormick provided valuable assistance. Significant assistance was also provided by Trial Attorney Christen Gallagher of the Office of International Affairs, the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Southern District of New York, HSI-Philadelphia, and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica C. Brooks.
ICE encourages anyone who suspects illegal activity to report it to local law enforcement. Tips can also be submitted to ICE anonymously online at ice.gov/tipline or by phone at 866-347-2423.
HSI is a directorate of ICE and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI's workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 special agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI's international presence represents DHS's largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.