A UK company has been linked to the laundering of 650,000 stolen bitcoins worth £4.5bn.The coins were taken by hackers from Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange Mt Gox, leaving tens of thousands of customers out of pocket.
It’s not clear who is in control of the London-based firm Always Efficient LLP.
Mt Gox operator Mark Karpeles apologised to investors and said he was co-operating with the investigation.
The FBI has charged a Russian national with laundering the stolen bitcoins.
Mt Gox matched up those who wanted to buy the crypto-currency with dollars, pounds and other international denominations with those wanting to sell bitcoins, and handled an estimated 70% of the world’s Bitcoin trade.
The exchange was originally set up to trade cards from a game set in a world of wizards, spells and monsters. When it turned its focus to crypto-currencies, it appeared to be a huge success story.
Almost half of Bitcoin trading is done in Japanese yen, and there’s even a Japanese girl group, the Virtual Currency Girls, which reflects Japan’s growing craze for virtual money.
But a group of amateur investigators, WizSec, found that hackers had targeted Mt Gox.
They had systematically pilfered users’ accounts, hiding their tracks from Mt Gox operators for years.
And in 2014, the site’s chief executive, Mark Karpeles, made the horrifying discovery that hundreds of thousands of coins were missing.
When customers found themselves unable to withdraw funds, the site collapsed.
Speaking for the first time about the collapse, Mr Karpeles said: “It felt like… when you fall from a building and you see the ground getting closer, and you feel like you are about to die.”
He said the site had rapidly grown beyond his expectations.
“Mt Gox went from interesting project to being, I would say, a daily nightmare of dealing with banks, governments, people I never knew existed.”
How the coins had gone missing was initially a mystery.
But now investigators say almost half the stolen coins from Mt Gox ended up at rival exchange BTC-e.
The FBI says BTC-e was a hub for cyber-crime and helped to launder money from hacks, including ransomware attacks of the kind that hit the NHS and other organisations last year.
But trying to find out who operates BTC-e isn’t easy. The exchange claimed to be operated by a British company called Always Efficient LLP.
Always Efficient’s registered office is in east London, but the address is shared by several other firms, some of which are thought to be involved in money laundering.
Duncan Hames, of anti-corruption group Transparency International, said it’s likely to be a shell company.
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