Cryptocurrency laundromat Blender shredded by US Treasury in sanctions first

Helping North Korea? Uncle Sam would like a word

The US Treasury has sanctioned cryptocurrency mixer Blender for its role in helping North Korea's Lazarus Group launder stolen digital assets. 

As a result, among other limitations, anyone in the United States or a US person can no longer do any business with Blender without special permission from the government.

This marks the Feds' first-ever sanctions against a crypto mixer, which cybercriminals can use to cover their tracks. As the name might suggest, cryptocurrency mixing, or tumbling, can obscure the source of some digital money. The laundered coins cannot be traced back to, say, a wallet robbed of its contents, allowing crooks to spend their ill-gotten gains without being linked to their crimes.

Such services have legitimate privacy uses, though Uncle Sam isn't happy that it can be used to make life easy for criminals, and so it's cracking down on the practice.

Lazarus Group is the cybercrime gang that does the dirty work for North Korea's Reconnaissance General Bureau. In late March, when the miscreants carried out the largest-ever virtual currency heist, stealing about $620 million from video game Axie Infinity's Ronin Network, they used Blender to process over $20.5 million of the illicit proceeds.

"Virtual currency mixers that assist illicit transactions pose a threat to US national security interests," Brian Nelson, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence said in a statement today. "We are taking action against illicit financial activity by the DPRK and will not allow state-sponsored thievery and its money-laundering enablers to go unanswered."

Blender also helps several Russian-backed ransomware gangs launder money, according to the department. These include Trickbot, Conti, Ryuk, REvil, and Gandcrab.

Mix and match

Here's an example of how mixers work: after a ransomware attack or a crypto-wallet theft, the crooks take their ill-gotten gains and begin the money laundering process by "mixing" criminal proceeds, via Blender or another crypto mixer, with other netizens' funds. 

Mixing illicit proceeds with a variety of other transactions, many of which are legitimate, allows criminals to obfuscate the origin of their gains. The mixed funds are then transmitted to their final destination in the hopes of escaping Uncle Sam's watchful eye. And while the purported use for Blender and other mixing services is to increase privacy, they are very popular among thieves.

Blender has helped transfer more than $500 million in Bitcoin since its creation in 2017, according to the Treasury.

In April, the Feds attributed the Axie Infinity heist to the Lazarus Group, and fingered gang's getaway wallet address. 

Today, as well as publicizing the sanctions, Treasury officials identified four more virtual currency wallet addresses the Lazarus Group is said to have used to launder the remainder of stolen electronic cash.

A day after attributing the heist to the Lazarus Group, the US State Department offered a reward up to $5 million for information that helps disrupt North Korea's cryptocurrency theft, cyber-espionage, and other illicit state-backed activities.

The US government has also warned that Lazarus is expanding its attacks in the blockchain and crypto space. Specifically, it's sending large numbers of spear-phishing messages to employees of cryptocurrency companies on a range of communications platforms that – as with the campaigns against chemical and IT firms – often look like recruitment offers for high-paying jobs, according to the FBI, CISA, and the Treasury Department. ®

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