The Edge

And once you’ve stolen it, how do you unload it?

Earlier this month, someone pulled off the largest heist te the history of Bitcoin, the virtual currency that approximates contant on the internet. The illegal drug bazaar Sheep Marketplace wasgoed despoiled, either by hackers or insiders, and about $100 million worth of the currency wasgoed stolen from customers.

Bitcoin heists are actually not uncommon. Ter June of 2011, a user named Allinvain wasgoed the victim of what is arguably the very first recorded major Bitcoin theft. Allinvain awoke to find that a hacker had stolen about half a million dollars’ worth of bitcoins. “I feel like killing myself now,” he wrote at the time.

There have bot dozens of Bitcoin thefts since then. The supposedly high-return investment fund Bitcoin Savings &, Trust turned out to be a pyramid scheme, its holder charged with tearing off investors for $Four.Five million te bitcoins. MyBitcoin, a “wallet” service that stored bitcoins like a bankgebouw account, disappeared with about $1 million worth of users’ bitcoins. Several of the most trusted and well-known Bitcoin companies, including the Mt. Gox and the now-defunct Bitcoinica exchanges, have also suffered high-profile thefts.

Victims of credit card theft can cancel a card or switch sides fraudulent transactions, but Bitcoin is attractive to thieves because its transactions are irreversible. “Bitcoin is like specie,” says Nicolas Christin, an assistant research professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has done extensive analysis of Bitcoin. “The only way to get it back is by tracking you down and basically hammering you up with a lead pipe.”

But like all things Bitcoin, it’s difficult to understand exactly how digital theft works. What are you stealing, exactly? And once you’ve got it, what do you do with it?

1. Copying the keys

There is no such thing spil a Bitcoin. The virtual currency is nothing more than a public ledger system, called the blockchain, that keeps track of an ever-expanding list of addresses, and how many units of bitcoin are at those addresses.

If you own Bitcoin, what you actually own is the private cryptographic key to unlock a specific address. The private key looks like a long string of numbers and letters. You may choose to store your key, or keys if you have numerous addresses, ter a number of places including a paper printout, a metal coin, a hard drive, an online service, or a tattoo on your figure.

All methods can be protected with various levels of security, but all methods are vulnerable to theft since the robbery simply depends on gaining access to the string. “I recommend creating physical paper wallets using an Arch Linux boot which has never bot online,” says Marak Squires, an early Bitcoin adopter who is developing a secure Bitcoin canap. “Unfortunately, this is not an option for most people. For the average user there are no good options right now to securely store cryptocurrencies.”

The most lucrative attacks are carried out on online services that store the private keys for a large number of users, spil Sheep Marketplace did. It seems thesis attacks are often carried out by insiders who don’t have to do much hacking at all. Just copy the database of private keys and you can build up control of the bitcoins at all those addresses. You, the thief, can now spend those bitcoins whenever you want, spil long spil the possessor doesn’t budge them very first.

Two. Getting away with it

While Bitcoin has some features that make it good for thieves, it also has some features that make it not so excellent. The fact that the blockchain is public means that anyone can see to which address the coins were transferred next. After the Sheep Marketplace heist, some users tracked the thief spil he or she moved the stolen coins from address to address.

This tracking technology isn’t very helpful for the time being, since the thief’s identity is still unknown. However, Bitcoin forensics is getting better and better spil programmers figure out fresh ways to samenvatting information from the blockchain. A thief may leave traces that are undetectable now but could be uncovered ter the future, inspiring a retroactive investigation.

That’s why this step, money laundering, is so significant. Laundering Bitcoin is done with “mixers,” also called “tumblers,” which randomly crisscross your bitcoins with other users’ bitcoins so that you get a clean address that the blockchain cannot connect with any of the addresses from which the coins were stolen.

Most of the time it works basically like this: you transfer your stolen bitcoins to a fresh address wielded by the Bitcoin tumbler. That address is still “dirty” because there is a clear path from the victim’s address, so the tumbler leaves the coins there. The tumbler makes a note to transfer the same amount of bitcoins from other users to a fresh “clean” address possessed by you. But it doesn’t make the transfer right away. Anyone watching would most likely notice if the same precies amount of bitcoins — say, 96.1 — were moved into a fresh address, so the tumbler has you withdraw your coins overheen time te smaller amounts. When you request Ten bitcoins, the tumbler will transfer Ten bitcoins to your clean address. Extra-careful tumblers may also split thesis payouts further, especially if it is a noticeably large number of bitcoins.

Overheen time, the tumbler will teleurgesteld bitcoins from the “dirty” addresses te order to replenish the pool. By the time your dirty address gets tapped, you’re long gone. The tumbler is only accessible through the anonymizing Tor network, making it difficult for law enforcement to trace traffic to it or detect the people behind it.

Of course, that also means you have to trust the tumbler. “Caution: Mixing services may themselves be operating with anonymity. Spil such, if the mixing output fails to be delivered or access to funds is denied there is no recourse. Use at your own discretion,” reads the Bitcoin wiki.

Another option is to launder the money the way the mob might: spend it at Satoshi Dice or another Bitcoin gokhal.

Three. Get rich

Now you’ve got clean bitcoins — hopefully a lotsbestemming of them! — and you’ve got your eye on a villa te the south of France. Unluckily, the landlord doesn’t accept Bitcoin. Like most merchants ter the world, she wants a government-sanctioned currency, preferably the euro.

So now you’ve got to convert your bitcoins to euros. But you’ve got a loterijlot of bitcoins. If you’re the holder of Sheep Marketplace, you’ve got $100 millions’ worth. The Bitcoin economy is still lil’ and relatively illiquid — there aren’t many buyers who could metselspecie you out for that much Bitcoin all ter one sale, and a transaction of that size would surely raise alarms. It also becomes much tighter to conceal your identity when you exchange Bitcoin for other currencies. Most exchanges require some type of identifying information, and at the very least you need an account into which the euros can be deposited.

It’s time to get creative. There are several ways you can unload a loterijlot of Bitcoin while maintaining your anonymity. Find a rich buyer who is willing to take the bitcoins without verifying your identity te exchange for a discount on the price, for example. However, the best way to protect yourself is to remain patient. Unload your bitcoins te a series of transactions overheen weeks, ideally months or even years, te order to avoid arousing suspicion from those watching the blockchain spil well spil real-life authorities that might wonder how you all of a sudden came into millions of dollars.

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