Dennis Lawrence, CFE, CAMS
Lawrence is a Denver-based risk consultant.
Bitcoin’s value in the criminal underworld continues to rise. Although well known as the preferred payment method on the Deep Web for illegal goods and services, the digital currency has attracted the attention of increasingly shadowy figures seeking to anonymously transfer funds. ISIS advocates its use for terrorist financing, and kidnappers seeking ransom payments have even begun demanding bitcoins instead of cash. Given its popularity amongst wrongdoers, discussions surrounding the role of digital currency in the multi-billion dollar business of bribery are curiously absent. Silence on the issue is perhaps all too ironic since the threat has never been greater for bribes to be both covertly delivered and hidden indefinitely from the eyes of investigators, forensic accountants and financial institutions.
In principle, Bitcoin transactions are far from untraceable. All transfers of currency are recorded in a public ledger called a blockchain, but only randomly generated Bitcoin addresses comprised of numbers and letters are logged… not names or identities. Many wallets containing Bitcoin addresses which are used for receiving, storing, and sending bitcoins also record IP addresses and require the uploading of personal identification documents. However, these security measures can be easily sidestepped by any determined individual with enough imagination. A few wallets purposely refrain from collecting any identifying information at all in order to appeal to specific audiences.
In order for a transaction to be traced to a person, investigators must figure out a way to tie an individual to a Bitcoin address. At present, users are able to transfer money without revealing their identities so long as they understand how to effectively operate the anonymous web browser Tor, certain wallets and exchanges, Bitcoin ATMs, and web applications such as Bitcoin Fog or Dark Wallet. These tools collectively subvert the digital currency’s traceability by disguising the true origin and destination of Bitcoin transactions. Paranoid users can even resort to private in-person meetings with local traders who exchange cash for bitcoins at a small fee with no questions asked.
So how can Bitcoin be leveraged in the payment of a bribe? Read the scenario below.
A construction company agrees to bribe a city official in exchange for facilitating the award of a lucrative public works contract. Given the high stakes involved, the bureaucrat wants no incriminating evidence that could potentially be uncovered in an investigation. After careful discussion, the parties arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.
In light of the construction industry’s common practice of paying certain workers in cash, a weekly purchase order request begins to be submitted at the company which describes compensation for day laborers. At the direction of executives, a trusted manager pays cash for a used laptop that he connects to a downtown coffee shop’s public Wi-Fi network during his lunch break in order to set up several Bitcoin wallets. He decides on an anonymous wallet or perhaps a Chinese wallet since they are the most unlikely to cooperate with Western authorities in the event of a subpoena. Shortly thereafter, the manager starts making weekly deposits of $5,000 into his wallet via anonymous Bitcoin ATMs . Using Bitcoin Fog on the Deep Web, the manager transfers $20,000 in cash per month to the city official who keeps the money hidden online in his wallet. Once a quarter, the bureaucrat travels abroad to cash out his small fortune using local Bitcoin traders and Bitcoin ATMs, partaking in luxury vacations and spending sprees. After the entirety of the $250,000 bribe has been paid to the city official, the construction manager physically destroys the laptop and never accesses the Bitcoin wallets again.
As illustrated, bribery using Bitcoin offers numerous advantages and few methods of detection. Even if a whistleblower were to come forward to disclose general details of the scandal, investigators would almost certainly hit a dead end. And in the unlikely event that authorities knew Bitcoin was somehow involved, where would they even start? It would be nearly impossible to establish a trail of evidence that could adequately serve as a basis for criminal prosecution or civil action. At worst, the construction company would receive a slap on the wrist for paying day laborers in cash.
The reason why we haven’t heard more about the involvement of Bitcoin in bribery schemes might be due to fraudsters not yet realizing the full potential of digital currency. Or perhaps, it’s because many investigators remain unaware of the extent to which it has already been used as a tool for bribery worldwide.