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US District Attorney sends a message to cybercriminals - we will come for you

The US is gearing up its defense against cybercriminals who cause havoc in the digital and physical world.

"Unfortunately, we continue to confront cybercriminals who enjoy safe haven in authoritarian countries and who wreak havoc in both the digital and physical worlds," Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said at the Annual Munich Cyber Security Conference.

The FBI, CISA, and the NSA issued a fresh warning that Russian state-sponsored cyber actors regularly target US defense contractors.

During the speech, she outlined the Department of Justice's (DoJ) new steps to combat this unprecedented threat.

Last year, the US launched the Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force to develop new ways to attack the ecosystem that allows ransomware to flourish. It seized back from criminally controlled wallets $2.3 million of the ransom paid after the Colonial Pipeline attack. In the wake of the attack on Kaseya, the FBI obtained decryptor keys so victims could unlock ransomed systems.

Monaco encouraged companies to report cybercrime so that institutions could follow the money, and hopefully, retrieve some of it back and prevent more people from falling victim.

For example, the FBI has a financial fraud kill chain in place. And just in 2020, together with financial institutions, they were able to retrieve around $500 million for victims.

The FBI is now forming a specialized team dedicated to cryptocurrency: the Virtual Asset Exploitation Unit (VAXU). This FBI unit will combine cryptocurrency experts into one nerve center that can provide equipment, blockchain analysis, virtual asset seizure, and training to the rest of the FBI.

This unit will join the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (NCET) work. Earlier this week, Eun Young Choi, a seasoned computer crimes prosecutor and a leader in the field, was named its first director. She will lead NCET in identifying, investigating, supporting, and pursuing the Justice Department's cases involving the illegal use of digital assets.

Silver and gold coins on dollar bills

It's a rare cyber investigation that doesn't have an international dimension, so prosecutors handling significant cyber investigations will now be required to consult with the DoJ's international and cybercrime specialists.

"Personifying this international focus, we are creating a new Cyber Operations International Liaison, that person's responsibility will be to work with US prosecutors and European partners to up the tempo of international operations against top-tier cyber actors. We will embed this capability in Europe to ensure more connectivity between our law-enforcement groups," Monaco said.

DoJ is also launching the International Virtual Currency Initiative to combat the abuse of virtual currency and track money through the blockchain.

Monaco highlighted that attack prevention will be prioritized over prosecution and arrest of cybercriminals from now on.

"Moving forward, prosecutors, agents, and analysts will now assess — at each stage of a cyber investigation — whether to use disruptive actions against cyber threats, even if they might otherwise tip the cybercriminals off and jeopardize the potential for charges and arrests. In other words, before we bring charges, we will assess whether there are steps we can take to prevent or reduce the risk to victims, steps like providing decryptor keys or seizing servers used to further cyberattacks."

She noted that charging and apprehending cybercriminals will still be a priority, too, as arrests, convictions, and incarcerations provide a serious and personal deterrent to criminals.

"My message to cybercriminals is equally clear: the long arm of the law can — and now will — stretch much farther into cyberspace than you think. If you continue to come for us, we will come for you."

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