Protocol | Fintech

Bitcoin’s star is rising. Cybercriminals are looking to cash in.

Even with the crypto market's recent pullback, bitcoin's value has more than tripled in a year. And the wave of novices entering the field are attractive targets.

Handcuffs next to bitcoins

Crypto crime is rising along with the surge in the value of digital currencies.

Photo: Bermix Studio/Unsplash

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies reached new heights of popularity this year, propelled by Elon Musk's tweets, Coinbase's blockbuster IPO and bitcoin's growing acceptance as an investment and store of value.

But a new report points to a downside: Criminals are trying to cash in on the growing interest in bitcoin and crypto. In fact, as the price of bitcoin has risen, so has the number of cyber attacks, a report published Tuesday by Barracuda Networks said.

"The danger is absolutely out there," Fleming Shi, Barracuda's chief technology officer, told Protocol. "That correlation between attacks and cryptocurrency value is stunning."

The Barracuda report focused mainly on bitcoin, whose value soared by more than 500% between October 2020 and April 2021. In that same period, the number of crypto-related attacks, including phishing impersonations and business email compromise incidents, jumped 192%, the security software company said.

The report used natural language processing technology to track online threats related to bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Threats related to non-bitcoin currencies was "a small portion of overall attacks," most of which cited bitcoin, the company said.

Bitcoin's price has fluctuated since mid-April, when it peaked near $65,000 around the time Coinbase shares began trading. In October, it traded around $10,600. Bitcoin's price was around $34,000 on Monday, according to CoinMarketCap.

That rally coincided with bitcoin's rising profile, pushed higher by news like Tesla's decision to take bitcoin as payment for cars, since reversed over concerns about bitcoin's environmental impact.

All that attention triggered more trading volume, which criminals quickly saw as an opportunity to strike, Shi said: "That drives the criminals to think, 'OK, now I can actually do a mass phishing campaign. I can get people to click on things more easily.' …As it becomes more popular, as it becomes more mainstream, they're leveraging that."

In general, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are considered "a perfect currency for criminal activity" since they are "unregulated, difficult to trace and increasing in value," the report said. Cybercriminals have sent emails to employees of specific organizations to entice them "to purchase bitcoin, donate to fake charities or pay a fake vendor," the report said.

Cryptocurrency advocates dispute the idea that bitcoin and other digital currencies are uniquely suited for crime, arguing that cash is harder to trace and used for more illicit transactions.

To the chagrin of crypto enthusiasts, though, bitcoin has emerged as the payment of choice in ransomware attacks. This was underscored in June when the FBI and the Justice Department announced they had recovered $2.3 million in bitcoin ransom paid to DarkSide, the criminal group that hacked Colonial Pipeline.

The Barracuda study offered insights into ransomware, which Shi said is definitely on the rise. The typical ransom demand has also been rising sharply, from "a few thousand dollars to $2 million" in 2019, to up to more than $20 million in 2021, the report said. "A majority of them are over $10 million ransom asks," Shi said.

He speculated that the spike in ransomware attacks was based on the belief of criminals that bitcoin and crypto offer them total anonymity. "When blockchain and cryptocurrency came out, it felt very secure for the bad guys," he said.

But as the Colonial Pipeline case demonstrated, he said, "While cryptocurrencies are hard to trace, they're not untraceable. With enough effort, you will get there."

And the trend toward higher ransom demands suggests "fewer organizations are actually paying the ransom and choosing to take the hit," the report said. This has led criminals to make bigger ransom demands, which has also prompted more ransomware targets to turn to law enforcement for help, Shi said.

Theranos’ investor pitches go on trial

Prosecutors in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud case are now highlighting allegations the company sought to mislead investors.

The fresh details of unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Theranos trial continued this week with testimony from Daniel Edlin, a former product manager at the blood-testing startup, and Shane Weber, a scientist from Pfizer. Their testimonies appeared to bolster the government's argument that Holmes intentionally defrauded investors and patients.

The fresh details about audacious and unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

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Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

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Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Policy

8 takeaways from states’ new filing against Google

New details have been unsealed in the states' antitrust suit against Google for anticompetitive behavior in the ads market.

Google is facing complaints by government competition enforcers on several fronts.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Up to 22%: That's the fee Google charges publishers for sales on its online ad exchanges, according to newly unredacted details in a complaint by several state attorneys general.

The figure is just one of the many details that a court allowed the states to unveil Friday. Many had more or less remained secrets inside Google and the online publishing industry, even through prior legal complaints and eager public interest.

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Protocol | Workplace

This tech founder uses a converted Sprinter van as an office on wheels

The CEO of productivity startup Rock likes to work on the road. Here's how he does it — starting with three different WiFi hotspots.

Kenzo Fong, founder and CEO of the 20-person productivity software startup Rock, has been working out of his converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van since the pandemic began.

Photo: Kenzo Fong/Rock

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Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Policy

Most Americans want AI regulation — and they want it yesterday

In a poll, people said they wanted to see artificial intelligence technologies develop in the U.S. — alongside rules governing their use.

U.S. lawmakers have only just begun the long process of regulating the use of AI.

Photo: Louis Velazquez/Unsplash

Nearly two-thirds of Americans want the U.S to regulate the development and use of artificial intelligence in the next year or sooner — with half saying that regulation should have begun yesterday, according to a Morning Consult poll. Another 13% say that regulation should start in the next year.

"You can thread this together," Austin Carson, founder of new nonprofit group SeedAI and former government relations lead for Nvidia, said in an email. "Half or more Americans want to address all of these things, split pretty evenly along ideological lines."

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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