FACT CHECK: Crypto is increasingly being used for criminal activity and is a haven for illicit finance
June 23, 2021, 6:11:37 AM
Because cryptocurrency is still new, we are often asked about the biggest myths surrounding it. It’s common for a new market or product to confuse people until they get familiar with it. Think about Airbnb: the idea of staying in a stranger’s home seemed crazy until it didn’t.
One of the most widespread but false notions about crypto is that it is mostly used by bad actors for illicit financing.
“Cryptocurrencies have been used to launder the profits of online drug traffickers; they’ve been a tool to finance terrorism,” says Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
It’s a tool of “kidnappers and extortionists” that is “contrary to civilization,” according to Berkshire Hathaway Vice President Charlie Munger.
“Very few people are using Bitcoin to pay their bills, but some people are using it to buy drugs [or] subvert elections,” writes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
And President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde thinks it’s “a highly speculative asset which has conducted some funny business and some interesting and totally reprehensible money-laundering activity.”
This is false. Let’s look at a few key data points.
Myth #1: The majority of cryptocurrency transactions are for illegal activities.
Research shows that illicit activity accounts for less than 1 per cent of transactions.
Of that small portion, scams make up the overwhelming majority of cryptocurrency-related crime — not money laundering, terrorism, trafficking, or other unlawful activities.
From 2017 to 2020, criminal economic activity was overwhelmingly conducted through traditional financial institutions.
Myth #2: More illegal activity takes place using cryptocurrency than with cash.
Good old-fashioned cash continues to be the funding of choice for criminals.
The UN estimates that ~$1.6 trillion in cash is laundered each year
Meanwhile, criminal activity in cryptocurrency actually fell quite dramatically, from 2.1% in 2019 to less than half a per cent in 2020.
Despite the perceived appeal of cryptocurrency for money laundering, an estimated 99 per cent of cryptocurrency transactions are performed through centralized exchanges subject to the same AML/CFT regulations as traditional banks.
Myth #3: Cryptocurrency makes it harder for law enforcement to investigate malfeasance.
Crypto is easier to track because searchable public databases (blockchains) already exist for the majority of transactions. Even the Department of Justice says so.
This gives law enforcement access to substantially more information than a case involving cash, including the date, time, and amount of the transaction, as well as the type of crypto used, the wallet address involved, and the unique transaction identifier (hash value).
Once that data is recorded in the blockchain, it cannot be altered retroactively, there is little risk of data loss, and confidentiality is maintained.
Immediately accessible with crypto, this kind of information can take law enforcement months or even years to obtain regarding cash transactions.
This data is already paying dividends to law enforcement, which has teamed up with private analytics firms to analyze blockchain transactions to identify individuals involved in illicit finance and pursue investigations into the dark web, child exploitation, and even terrorist financing.
These examples illustrate that crypto is not a haven for criminal activity or illicit financial dealings, but a medium for a wide range of secure, trackable transactions.