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How compliance software detects fraud and ML involving crypto

by Connor Sephton

As the crypto markets mature and institutional money flows into the space, technology to detect fraud and money laundering involving digital assets is more important than ever.

The crypto industry has boomed over the past 12 months. While 2019 began with a total market cap of $200 billion, the explosion in Bitcoin’s value resulted in this figure surging fivefold as 2020 began — and according to CoinMarketCap, the digital assets space was collectively worth $1 trillion at one point.

However, as the crypto sector continues to grow and flourish, so too does crypto-related crime. Virtual assets worth $3.8 billion were lost to fraud in 2019. This figure rose to almost $4.9 billion in 2020.

Fraud, money laundering and the financing of terrorism are not issues that are exclusive to the cryptocurrency sector — and every financial system on Earth has had to take action to ensure its infrastructure isn’t used for illicit purposes. But now, regulators around the world are stepping up their efforts to clamp down on criminal activity — and this has the potential to affect operations for crypto service providers, many of whom are still behind the curve.

Mainstream media coverage of digital assets has increased dramatically in recent months, with countless column inches devoted to BTC’s current bull run. This increased exposure also results in newfound scrutiny, especially when exchanges fall victim to high-profile hacks. Thankfully, there are ways for crypto businesses to take action, to protect their operations, and to work in the interests of their consumers in the process.

Achieving compliance

Amid the fractured landscape of regulatory developments for crypto, one of the most important sets of guidelines has come from the Financial Action Task Force, which has 39 members including the European Commission, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The FATF recently unveiled a series of red flag indicators that suggest potentially suspicious activity is taking place — or possible attempts by entities to evade law enforcement. For example, the size and frequency of transactions could set off alarm bells for compliance officers, especially if such repeated payments are made that fall just underneath the threshold for reporting.

Other issues may arise where deposits are made using bank accounts that use a different name to the one registered with a crypto exchange, where mixers and tumblers are used to obfuscate the origins of BTC payments, or where potentially suspicious IP addresses are used.

At first, it might seem like a nightmare for virtual asset service providers to introduce safeguards that quickly detect when these red flag indicators emerge. In a competitive marketplace, some will be concerned about the costs associated with stopping high-risk transactions in their tracks — as well as the disruption that their operations could face if legitimate activity is mistaken for something more sinister.

But platforms do exist that can monitor new transactions in real time — instantaneously assigning a risk score to each and every transaction. This is by no means a straightforward task, as the high volume of transactions running through blockchains daily means that analysis needs to take place continuously and without interruption.

The speed with which bad actors can execute transactions also means that compliance systems need to be fast acting — identifying centers of suspicious activity, and creating meaningful connections to other wallets where potentially illegally acquired funds are distributed. Past data may also be used to anticipate future events, meaning that exchanges can receive a warning that potentially risky activity is about to happen — even if a transaction hasn’t been confirmed yet.

The benefits associated with this type of software aren’t hypothetical. In late September, KuCoin announced that close to $280 million was stolen from its exchange as a result of a security breach. Analytics tools enabled the company to track down and freeze these funds so they couldn’t be laundered further — and 84% of the assets taken were later recovered.

Taking action

The technical nature of blockchain — along with the prevalence of crypto scams — has caused a significant image problem for Bitcoin in society. But despite missteps in the first decade of its existence, aspects of blockchain design champion transparency and security — meaning it can offer far greater levels of protection than older financial systems. If $500,000 in banknotes are stolen from a bank vault, the funds could end up being far harder to track down than if the same amount was taken in BTC from an exchange that has safeguards in place.

Crystal Blockchain says its analytics platform enables compliance officers and anti-fraud departments to stop illicit activity in its tracks — and monitoring can either be performed manually or automatically as settings are configurable by the user.

This is achieved by understanding the provenance of funds being sent over the blockchain, their connections, their flow paths, and by alerting crypto service providers if these assets are stolen or fraudulent. Addresses and bank cards can be linked to fraud, extortion, ransomware and darknet marketplaces. Businesses can also be alerted when entities are attempting to deposit to or withdraw funds from accounts and exchanges that have little or no due diligence procedures in place.

Institutional adoption of cryptocurrencies is happening at a staggering rate — and as we head into 2021 and beyond, Wall Street is ramping up efforts to ensure it has the infrastructure required for traders to gain exposure to digital assets. But this comes with an expectation of a mature marketplace, meaning crypto service providers need to take the necessary actions to ensure they aren’t operating in the Wild West any more.

Marina Khaustova, the CEO of Crystal Blockchain, told Cointelegraph: “The crypto industry is relatively young, and as the technology develops it also brings with it unique compliance requirements. We need to combine the best practices of the more mature financial industries with the knowledge amassed by crypto market experts to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism. By assisting with fraud identification and suspicious activity monitoring on the blockchain, Crystal aims to improve safety and trust in the global financial markets.”

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