North Korean hackers charged with massive crypto theft

Federal authorities said Wednesday that three North Korean computer programmers have been charged with carrying out a series of cyberattacks to attempt to steal and extort more than $ 1.3 billion in cash and cryptocurrency from financial institutions and companies.

The programmers, who are part of a North Korean military intelligence agency, are also charged with creating and implementing “multiple malicious cryptocurrency applications, and fraudulently developing and marketing a blockchain platform,” according to a statement from Department of Justice press.

And the scheme also implemented repeated “phishing campaigns” from 2016 to early 2020 targeting employees of the US Department of Defense, the Department of State, and workers of US-licensed defense contractors, energy companies. , aerospace companies and technology companies, authorities said. .

Hackers also took control of bank ATMs to extract cash from them as part of the conspiracy, the indictment says.

During a press conference on Wednesday, officials said that the development and marking in 2017 and 2018 of the so-called Marine Chain Token, which allowed investors to buy fractional ownership stakes in blockchain-powered shipping vessels, enabled Korea to North “secretly obtain funds from investors, control interests in shipping vessels, and evade US sanctions.”

Tracy Wilkinson, Acting United States Attorney for the Central District of California, said: “The scope of criminal conduct by North Korean hackers was extensive and long-lasting, and the range of crimes they have committed is staggering.”

Wilkinson also said: “The conduct detailed in the indictment is the acts of a criminal nation-state that has stopped at nothing to exact revenge and obtain money to prop up its regime.”

The indictment filed in the United States District Court in Los Angeles charges Jon Chang, 31, Kim Il, 27, and Park Jin Hyo, 36, were members of units of the General Survey Office, a law enforcement agency. North Korean military intelligence engaged in criminal activities. to hack. Authorities noted that Park was previously indicted in a September 2018 criminal complaint that detailed the cyber attack on Sony Pictures and the creation of the ransomware known as WannaCry.

At the same time, on Wednesday, officials announced that a Canadian-American citizen, Ghaleb Alaumary, 37, agreed to plead guilty to a money laundering scheme and admitted to helping the accused North Koreans “withdraw” their “cyber services”. -track to an authorized bank “.

Authorities said Alaumary organized teams of people in the United States and Canada to launder millions of dollars obtained by hackers through ATM cash withdrawal transactions.

The conspiracy, which officials said was aimed at revenge or financial gain depending on the target, included the 2014 attack on Sony for its satirical film “The Interview,” which described the killing of North Korea, as well as the target. from AMC cinemas. , which showed the movie. Another alleged target was Mammoth Screen, which was producing a fictional series that featured a British scientist held hostage by North Korea and digitally hacked in 2015.

Authorities also said that hackers from 2015 to 2019 tried to rob more than $ 1.2 billion from banks in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Mexico, Malta and Africa by breaking into their computer networks and sending fraudulent messages through the messaging system. SWIFT bank.

The hackers are accused of targeting hundreds of cryptocurrency companies and stealing tens of millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrencies as part of the scheme.

A Slovenian cryptocurrency company was scammed out of $ 75 million in said currency, authorities said, and hackers stole nearly $ 25 million worth of cryptocurrency from an Indonesian cryptocurrency company in September 2018 and $ 11.8 million from the New York financial services company last summer using malicious software. CryptoNeuro Trader application.

The defendants are also charged with stealing $ 6.1 million from BankIslami Pakistan Limited as part of a series of ATM cash withdrawal schemes, the creation of the WannaCry 2.0 ransomware in 2017 “and extortion and attempted extortion of victim companies, “the Justice Department said.

And the scheme also allegedly developed multiple malicious cryptocurrency applications since March 2018 that gave North Korean hackers backdoors into victims’ computers. Those apps included Celas Trade Pro, WorldBit-Bot, iCryptoFx, Union Crypto Trader, Kupay Wallet, CoinGo Trade, Dorusio, CryptoNeuro Trader and Ants2Whale, officials said.

“North Korean agents, using keyboards instead of weapons, stealing cryptocurrency digital wallets instead of bags of cash, are the world’s top bank robbers,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers of the Division of Department of Justice Homeland Security.

The case occurs when the price of the leading cryptocurrency, bitcoin, has risen more than 400% in the last 12 months.

The price of Bitcoin has risen more than 75% as an increasing number of corporations feel comfortable accepting it as an offer and as a store of value and medium of exchange.

At one point on Wednesday, bitcoin was selling for $ 51,165, close to its all-time high that it reached earlier in the day, according to Coin Metrics.

JPMorgan has said it is considering allowing cryptocurrency banking, and the Bank of New York Mellon, the nation’s oldest bank, said last week that it will soon allow digital currencies to pass through the same financial network it currently uses for holdings more. traditional such as US Treasury bonds and stocks.

Payment companies like PayPal and Mastercard have stepped up efforts on their platforms to support cryptocurrency processing. And electric car maker Tesla revealed last week in a government filing that it had invested $ 1.5 billion in bitcoin and planned to accept the digital currency as payment for its products.

But bitcoin’s history of theft and high-profile hacking has left some still doubting its safety, particularly as it is often kept in digital wallets on independent networks.

In recent years, thieves have stolen billions of dollars in bitcoins. And the digital nature of those thefts often makes it difficult for authorities to track down criminals.

– CNBC Tom franck contributed to this report


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