Thieves target digital currency investors on the street in a wave of “crypto attacks”, police have warned, and victims report that thousands of pounds were stolen after their mobile phones were seized.
Anonymized crime reports provided to the Guardian by City of London police, as part of a request for freedom of information, reveal that criminals are combining physical muscle with digital skills to separate people from their cryptocurrency.
One victim reported that they were trying to book an Uber near London’s Liverpool Street station when thieves forced them to hand over their phone. While the gang finally returned the phone, the victim later noticed that £ 5,000 of ethereum digital currency was missing from their account with the crypto investment platform Coinbase.
In another case, a man was approached by a group of people offering to sell him cocaine and agreed to go down an alley with them to make the deal. The men offered to type a number into his phone but instead accessed his crypto account, holding him against a wall and forcing him to unlock a smartphone app with face confirmation. They transferred a £ 6,000 wave, another digital currency, from his account.
A third victim said he vomited under a bridge when a thief forced him to unlock his phone with a fingerprint, then changed his security settings and stole £ 28,700, including a cryptocurrency.
In another case, a victim told police his cards and phone had been stolen after an evening in the pub, with £ 10,000 later stolen from their account with the investment platform Crypto.com. The victim used his phone in the bar and believed thieves saw him typing in his account pin, the report said.
“It’s kind of a crypto foam,” said David Gerard, the author of Attack on the 50 Foot Blockchain, a book about digital currencies.
Transfers of cryptocurrencies are irreversibleas opposed to bank transfer, making this type of crime more attractive to thieves.
“If I am robbed and they force me to make a bank transfer, the bank can track where the money has gone and there are all sorts of returns. You can reverse the transaction.
“With a crypto, if I hand it over to my crypto wallet, I have your coins and you can’t get them back.”
He said the risks were exacerbated by the way some people handle their investments with smartphones, without exercising the same caution they would do with cash. “People keep stupid amounts of money in the crypt. They don’t think it’s money in any way.”
Gurvais Grigg, a 23-year FBI veteran, now works as a chief public sector technology officer for Chainalysis, which helps government agencies and financial institutions track digital currency movements.
He said the nature of cryptocurrency, where transactions are recorded on the blockchain, meant that police should, in theory, be able to track stolen crypto.
“Al [transfer stolen assets], they must provide a wallet address and, most likely, they will use that wallet address again in the future. You also have to bring it to an exchange if you want to convert it into a trusted currency. “
He said this has created a digital paper trail that researchers can and regularly do to track multimillion-dollar cryptocurrencies. However, he said they are less likely to have the means to prosecute smaller, one-off crimes.
“An individual theft of a small amount may not get the attention of the police or a large police agency.
“If they could put together a larger conspiracy of action where people do it more than once or twice, police services would probably pay attention.”
The crypto attacks took place in the second half of 2021, in the relatively small part of the financial district of London patrolled by the City of London police.
The events are not the first in which people have been forced to hand over cryptocurrency with the threat of violence.
A student in Kent claimed last year that eight people had assaulted his university residence and forced him to hand over £ 68,000 of bitcoin at a knife.
Later that year, American technology entrepreneur Zaryn Dentzel told police he had been attacked at home in Madrid by hooded thieves. He said they tortured him with a knife and a stun gun before disappearing with millions of euros in bitcoin.
However, the nature of the crimes reported in London last year – seemingly opportunistic street incidents similar to stealing for cash or valuables – presents new challenges for the police.
Phil Ariss, who leads the crypto team on the National Police The council’s cybercrime program has said more training is being given to police officers on various cryptocurrencies.
He said police are also looking for ways to inform the public of the need to be cautious when accessing a crypto account.
“You wouldn’t walk down the street holding £ 50 tickets and counting them. That should be true for people with cryptocurrencies, “he said.