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Crypto crooks want more than just a bit of your coin, warns FBI

The amount of cryptocurrency reported as being used in online crime increased sevenfold in one year, despite an overall dip in complaint numbers, according to data from the Bureau.

In 2021, 34,202 complaints involving digital denominations of money, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, or Ripple, were filed with IC3, the FBI’s cybercrime reporting mechanism – a slight decrease on the previous year’s total of 35,229.

But during the same year, the value of currency reported as stolen or defrauded soared to $1.6 billion – nearly seven times higher than the 2020 total of $246 million.

“Once limited to hackers, ransomware groups, and other denizens of the dark web, cryptocurrency is becoming the preferred payment method for all types of scams,” said the FBI in its annual report on cybercrime. “SIM swaps, tech support fraud, romance scams, even some auction fraud. It is extremely pervasive in investment scams, where losses can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars per victim.”

Beware crypto ATMs

The FBI pointed to the rapid rise of ATMs dealing in cryptocurrency as a key area of vulnerability that cybercriminals are increasingly seeking to exploit, with the IC3 receiving more than 1,500 reports of scams using such machines to defraud victims out of a total $28 million in losses.

“Regulations on the machines are lax and purchases are almost instantaneous and irreversible, making this payment method lucrative to criminals,” it said.

Other bad actors were impersonating cryptocurrency advisers to bilk the unwary out of digital funds in phishing and other social engineering scams.

“Increasingly, crypto owners are falling victim to scammers impersonating support or security from cryptocurrency exchanges,” said the FBI. “Owners are alerted to an issue with their wallet and convinced to give access or transfer to another wallet to ‘safeguard’ the contents.”

It also warned cryptocurrency owners against searching the internet for assistance with digital money matters. “Owners contact fake support numbers online and are convinced to give up login information or control of their crypto accounts,” the report said.

Look out for crime, not love

Those looking for love or money online were popular targets for threat actors, with victims of romance scams pressured into bogus investment schemes involving digital currency.

Known as “pig butchering”, this dual-use con combining romance and crypto totalled 4,325 cases resulting in losses of more than $429 million, according to IC3.

“The scammer's initial contact is typically made via dating apps and other social media sites,” said the FBI. “The scammer gains the confidence and trust of the victim, and then claims to have knowledge of cryptocurrency investment or trading opportunities that will result in substantial profits.”

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