ROME: Those involved in organised crime can’t afford to fall behind the times, especially when it comes to raking in cash.
So cryptocurrency is not only an issue for people who are involved in technology and finance, but also for those trying to either sustain or break up criminal networks.
More and more, Italy’s Mafia is turning to digital currency for its illegal operations, for example.
“All criminal organisations, even those like the Mafia, have an interest in using these instruments for their business,” said an official with the DIA, Italy’s anti-Mafia police, in an interview with dpa. He asked that his name not be used for safety reasons.
The best-known cryptocurrency is bitcoin, which is purely digital, meaning there’s no bill or coin to be held. Instead, the money is made up of cryptological codes of numbers and letters. They are generally decentralised, with transactions taking place directly between users.
That means the transactions do not involve financial regulators or government guidelines. Users employ something called a blockchain, a complex kind of database, to make sure that bitcoins aren’t duplicated.
That’s the kind of thing that appeals to the Mafia, which is how it became involved in digital finance, said the DIA official from his office on the outskirts of Rome. Transactions with digital currencies are fast and offer security, as well as a kind of anonymity, all of which are advantageous for illegal business.
That makes it hard to find anyone involved in any business using cryptocurrency. Police tend not to reveal data about trade volumes, investigations or damages linked to any illegal business.
For example, the ‘Ndrangheta Mafia, based in Calabria, use cryptocurrencies for trade with Latin American cartels, according to the most recent DIA report to lawmakers, focused on the first half of 2020. The ‘Ndrangheta focuses primarily on the cocaine trade and has made use of digital money to ease transactions with Colombian cartels.
And there’s more, according to the report.
“The Mafia seems to be directing its attention to cybercrime and the possibilities of the dark web, which are both hard to monitor, in order to direct large sums of financial resources to completely illegal ends.”
By turning money raised illegally into cryptocurrency and then using it in illegal parts of the Internet, like the dark web, the Mafia can launder money or pay bills without attracting notice.
Still, the police have enjoyed moments of success, despite the anonymity and wide reach of the web. At the end of April, Italian police brought in more than two dozen members of the Nigerian organised group Black Aze in connection to illegal migration and the drug trade. They stand accused of using bitcoin to buy fake credit cards online, which they used to buy yet more merchandise.
In another case, in August 2019, police put four Ukrainians into handcuffs in the Tuscan city of Lucca. They were accused of being part of an organisation using the dark web to buy drugs like cocaine, LSD and marijuana from Germany and the Netherlands using bitcoin.
According to the DIA report, police are bulking up the number of units capable of Internet investigations, with more collaboration with the country’s finance police and national police forces.
One goal is to make sure investigators gather evidence in a legally sound fashion, making sure data is not subject to tampering, a member of the Carabinieri, the national police, told La Repubblica newspaper in June. That’s the only way to make sure this evidence stands up in court.
German police have also gained experience with cryptocurrencies.
“The use of cryptocurrencies for online payments in the course of crimes, such as those related to customs, has climbed significantly,” according to a statement from the country’s main customs agency.
Investigators say bitcoin and another currency, monero, are the favourites.
Customs officials also say they’ve seen that cryptocurrencies are being used for crimes that involve finding ways to anonymise the purchase and shipping of illegal goods.
Doing so allows criminals to disguise their identity and location, since the payment goes from one user to another and not through any bank, which would normally alert authorities if anything strange popped up. – dpa