Criminals in Europe are using cryptocurrencies to launder as much as $5.5 billion (£4 billion) in illegal money according to the head of Europol, the EU’s policing agency.
Director of Europol, Rob Wainwright, estimates that around 4% of all criminal proceeds in Europe are being funneled through cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin — and he expects this figure to increase. Given that the agency’s standing estimate for the total amount of illicit cash circulating Europe is around $138 billion (£100 billion), this would put the amount being trafficked in cryptocurrencies at $5.5 billion.
“It’s growing quite quickly and we’re quite concerned,” Wainwright said in an interview with the BBC. He went on to add that police find it harder to stop illicit cryptocurrency transfers because they have no way to freeze crypto wallets in the way they could freeze a traditional bank account: “They’re not banks and governed by a central authority so the police cannot monitor those transactions,” he said. “And if they do identify them as criminal they have no way to freeze the assets unlike in the regular banking system.” To make matters worse, Europol has determined that money mules are being used to cash out, converting Bitcoin into fiat currencies in smaller amounts making it harder for police to track.
Speaking to the industry in general, Wainwright said the following: “They have to take a responsible action and collaborate with us when we are investigating very large-scale crime. I think they also have to develop a better sense of responsibility around how they’re running virtual currency.”
Law enforcement officials across the board are increasingly concerned about the use of cryptocurrencies by organized criminals. The coins are not directly regulated in Europe and it is still unclear among most financial regulators how they should be classified under existing laws. The UK is considering making amendments to EU anti-money laundering rules to make it apply to cryptocurrencies.
With regard to money laundering, Bitcoin appears to be the most frequently used cryptocurrency, likely because of its higher profile. But officials have also voiced concerns about others like Monero and Zcash, which go to even greater lengths to conceal the identities of those trading in them. Overall, Litecoin and Dash are actually second to Bitcoin in terms of trading volume on the dark web.
Outside policing agencies like Europol, others governmental organizations are more enthusiastic about the future of cryptocurrencies — in particular, blockchain technology. The European Commission announced in a press release earlier this month that it is launching the EU Blockchain Observatory and Forum, taking a great step forward aimed at “uniting” the economy around Blockchain. The project will bring together various sectors, including regulators, industry experts, and politicians, to develop new use cases.