How to Launder $500 Million in Digital Currency

Early Friday morning in Tokyo, hackers broke into a cryptocurrency exchange called Coincheck Inc. and made off with nearly $500 million in digital tokens. It’s one of the biggest heists in history, with the exchange losing more than 500 million of the somewhat obscure NEM coins. The hack has raised questions about security of cryptocurrencies around the world.

1. How did the hackers pull it off?

Coincheck hasn’t disclosed how their system was breached beyond saying that it wasn’t an inside job. The company did own up to a security lapse that allowed the thief to seize such a large sum: It kept customer assets in what’s known as a hot wallet, which is connected to external networks. Exchanges generally try to keep a majority of customer deposits in cold wallets, which aren’t connected to the outside world and thus are less vulnerable to hacks. Coincheck also lacked multi-signature security, a measure requiring multiple sign-offs before funds can be moved.

2. Where did the stolen coins go?

That’s one of the stranger aspects of these heists. Because transactions for Bitcoin and the like are all public, it’s easy to see where the NEM coins are — even though they’re stolen. Coincheck has identified and published 11 addresses where all 523 million of the stolen coins ended up. You can see for yourself online. Trouble is, no one knows who owns the accounts. Each one has been labeled with a tag that reads “coincheck_stolen_funds_do_not_accept_trades : owner_of_this_account_is_hacker.” NEM developers created a tracking tool that would allow exchanges to automatically reject stolen funds.

3. Does that mean the hackers won’t be able to cash in?

Not necessarily. The thief may be able to shake off surveillance by going through a “tumbler,” a service like ShapeShift that offers cryptocurrency trading without collecting personal data. Converting NEM coins into a more anonymized currency, like Monero, could conceivably launder them. But the huge total amount of money stolen presents a challenge. NEM trading was disabled on ShapeShift as of Monday…

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