While banks can stop or reverse large electronic transactions made under duress, there is no bitcoin bank to halt or take back a transfer, making the chances of a successful armed holdup frighteningly enticing.
SAN FRANCISCO — The currency they were after was virtual, but the guns they carried were anything but.
In the beach resort of Phuket, Thailand, last month, the assailants pushed their victim, a young Russian man, into his apartment and kept him there, blindfolded, until he logged onto his computer and transferred about $100,000 worth of bitcoin to an online wallet they controlled.
A few weeks before that, the head of a bitcoin exchange in Ukraine was taken hostage and released only after the company paid a ransom of $1 million in bitcoin.
In New York City, a man was held captive by a friend until he transferred over $1.8 million worth of Ether, a virtual currency second in value only to bitcoin.
The rich have always feared robbery and extortion. Now, big holders of bitcoin and its brethren have become alluring marks for criminals, especially since the prices of virtual currencies entered the stratosphere last year.
Virtual currencies can be easily transferred to an anonymous address set up by a criminal. While banks can stop or reverse large electronic transactions made under duress, there is no bitcoin bank to halt or take back a transfer, making the chances of a successful armed holdup frighteningly enticing.
Thieves have taken advantage of this system in a startling number of recent cases, from Russia, Ukraine and Turkey to Canada, the United States and Britain.
“This is now becoming more pervasive and touching more law-enforcement divisions that deal with organized crime and violent crime on a local level,” said Jonathan Levin, founder of Chainalysis, which has worked with several law-enforcement agencies on virtual-currency crimes.
Levin’s company specializes in tracking criminal transactions on the blockchain, the computerized ledger where every bitcoin transaction is publicly recorded.
Chainalysis has helped police attempt to track down criminals in several recent cases, including some that have not been made public, according to Levin.
But even when a transaction can be tracked, the design of bitcoin means that criminals do not have to associate their identity with their bitcoin address — as is necessary with most traditional bank accounts. That has stymied police in several cases.
“For this, the advantage of bitcoin is that it’s hard to verify,” said Chanut Hongsitthichaikul, an investigator with the Chalong Police Station, which investigated the case in Phuket. “We asked the victim how to track it since they know bitcoin better than us. We asked them how to check the receiver. They said there is no way. It is hard to do.”
Thai police tracked the victim’s laptop, which was also stolen, to Kuala Lumpur. That’s where the trail went cold.
While the recent crime wave has brought a new level of violence, virtual-currency holders have been targets for several years. Criminals have been staging a long-running campaign to remotely hijack the cellphone numbers of prominent virtual-currency holders to gain control of their digital wallets.
A few years ago, some of bitcoin’s earliest proponents had SWAT teams called to their homes by people who demanded big bitcoin payments to stop the harassment — a tactic called “SWATing” in some online communities.
There have also been many documented holdups around the world at in-person meetings where people were looking to convert cash into virtual currency, including one last year in Palm Beach, Florida, where the thief made off with $28,000 before being arrested.
But criminals have grown much more brazen as the price of bitcoin has spiked.
The most audacious attack hit Exmo, the virtual-currency exchange in Ukraine.
The chief executive of the exchange, Pavel Lerner, was abducted the day after Christmas and freed a few days later after the company made a ransom payment of bitcoin worth around $1 million.
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A spokeswoman for Exmo said the money came from Lerner’s personal funds. Lerner was on leave from the company but would return.
A month earlier, a Turkish businessman was forced to hand over the passwords to his virtual currency wallets — containing nearly $3 million worth of bitcoin — after his car was stopped by an armed gang in Istanbul that appeared to know about his bitcoin holdings, according to local news reports.
Many big virtual-currency holders privately say they will no longer travel to Russia, Turkey or other countries where they assume that attacks may be easier to pull off because of organized crime.
But armed attackers have also hit a Canadian bitcoin exchange in Ottawa, the Ether investor in New York City and a prominent virtual-currency trader living near Oxford, England.
In a number of cases, the assailants have been caught — and been forced to return the money — because of video footage. But in other cases, the criminals are still at large.