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A life after crime: What happens to crypto seized in criminal investigations?

Like with any kind of property, law enforcement has the right to sell your coins and spend the money.

Earlier this year, during the annual Queen’s Speech in the United Kingdom, Prince Charles informed the Parliament about two bills. One of them — the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill — would expand the government’s powers to seize and recover crypto assets.

Meanwhile, the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seized more than $3 billion worth of crypto in 2021.

As digital currencies’ monetary stock grows and enforcers’ scrutiny over the maturing industry tightens, the amount of seized funds will inevitably increase.

But where do these funds go, assuming they aren’t returned to the victims of scams and fraud? Are there auctions, like there are for forfeited property? Or are these coins destined to be stored on some kind of special wallet, which might end up as a perfect investment fund for law enforcement agencies? Cointelegraph tried to get some answers.

The dark roots of civil forfeiture

For the newcomers in the room, cryptocurrency is money. In that sense, the destiny of seized crypto shouldn’t differ much from other confiscated money or property. Civil forfeiture, the forceful taking of assets from individuals or companies allegedly involved in illegal activity, is a rather controversial law enforcement practice. In the U.S., it first became common practice in the 1980s as a part of the war on drugs, and it has been the target of vocal critics ever since. 

In the U.S., any seized assets become the permanent property of the government if a prosecutor can prove that the assets are connected with criminal activity or if nobody demands their return. In some cases, the assets are returned to their owner as a part of a plea deal with the prosecution. Some estimate, however, that just 1% of seized assets are ever returned.

How do law enforcement agencies use the money they don’t have to return? They spend it on whatever they want or need, such as exercise equipment, squad cars, jails and military hardware. In 2001, for example, the St. Louis County Police Department used $170,000 to buy a BEAR (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response) tactical vehicle. In 2011, it spent $400,000 on helicopter equipment. The Washington Post analyzed more than 43,000 forfeiture reports and reported that the seized money was spent on things as varying as an armored personnel carrier ($227,000), a Sheriff’s Award Banquet ($4,600) and even hiring a clown ($225) to “improve community relations.”

Some states, like Missouri, legally oblige that seized funds be allocated to schools, but as the Pulitzer Center points out, law enforcement agencies keep almost all of the money using the federal Equitable Sharing Program loophole. In 2015, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued an order prohibiting federal agency forfeiture, but his successor under the administration of President Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, repealed it, calling it “a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime.”

Seized coins’ destiny in the U.S., U.K. and EU

While none of the experts who spoke to Cointelegraph could speak to the technical aspects of storing seized crypto assets, the rest of the procedure tends to be pretty much the same as with non-crypto assets.

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Don Fort, a former chief of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division who heads the investigations department at law firm Kostelanetz & Fink, told Cointelegraph that the only principal distinction is the necessity to auction the digital assets off:

“At the federal level, seized cryptocurrency goes to either the Department of Justice or Department of Treasury Forfeiture Fund. Once the crypto funds are auctioned off by one of the forfeiture funds, the funds can be used by the respective federal law enforcement agencies.”

Fort explained that as with non-crypto funds, the agency requesting forfeited funds has to submit a specific plan or initiative to acclaim the money and spend it, and the plan must be approved by the Department of Justice before the funds can be allocated to the agency.

A similar procedure regulates the allocation of seized crypto in the United Kingdom. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 outlines how cryptocurrency proceeds of crime should be dealt with once seized. Tony Dhanjal, head of tax at Koinly, explained to Cointelegraph:

“When it generally comes to confiscated assets — as opposed to cash — the Home Office gets 50%, and the other 50% is split between the Police, Crown Prosecution Services and the Courts. There is also leeway for some of the confiscated assets to be returned to the victims of crypto crime.”

However, Dhanjal believes the legislation needs to be updated to deal specifically with crypto assets, as they are a “unique challenge for crime agencies as anything that has ever come before it.” The aforementioned announcement of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill didn’t include any specifics aside from the intention to “create powers to more quickly and easily seize and recover crypto assets,” but an update on the procedure of seized crypto allocation is surely something to be desired.

As it often goes for regulatory policies, the European Union is more complicated. While there are systems of mutual assistance in criminal matters within the EU, criminal legislation falls within the authority of the member states, and there is no single agency to coordinate enforcement or seizure.

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Hence, there are various ways seized crypto is handled. Thibault Verbiest, a Paris-based partner at law firm Metalaw, cited several cases to Cointelegraph. In France, for example, the Agency for the Recovery and Management of Seized and Confiscated Assets (AGRASC) is responsible for managing seized property. Verbiest stated:

“When, as a result of a judicial investigation, assets have been seized, they are, by decision of the public prosecutor, transferred to the AGRASC, which will decide, in accordance with Articles 41-5 and 99-2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the fate of these assets; they will be sold at public auction or destroyed.”

But it is not always possible to seize crypto assets. In 2021, 611 Bitcoin (BTC) was sold at a public auction by the AGRASC after it seized the cold storage devices used by prosecuted people, who had stored their encryption keys on a USB stick. As Verbiest explained:

“This was made possible by the fact that the aforementioned articles allow seizures on the movable property, so the USB stick (and its content) could be seized. The case would have been different if the crypto funds had been stored on a third-party server via a delegated storage service, as the aforementioned texts do not allow seizures of intangible property.”

With the practice of property forfeiture remaining highly controversial — with some even preferring to call it “highway robbery” — cryptocurrencies provide their owners at least a relative degree of protection. Still, technology aside, it’s in the area of policy where both coiners and no-coiners will have to fight against the long tradition of law enforcement overreach.

New York State Senate passes Bitcoin mining moratorium

The bill, once approved by Governor Kathy Hochul, would make New York the first state in the U.S to put a moratorium on crypto mining.

The New York State Senate approved a controversial proof-of-work (PoW) mining ban bill that would prohibit any new Bitcoin (BTC) mining operations in the state.

The PoW mining ban bill was first passed by the state assembly in April. It aims to prohibit any new mining operations in the state for the next two years. Now, the bill is headed for the governor’s office, which, once approved, would make New York the first state in the United States to place a moratorium on cryptocurrency mining.

Status of the bill as of June 3. Source: New York State Senate

PoW mining consensus is predominantly used by Bitcoin miners and is considered one of the safest and most decentralized ways of mining. However, the practice is controversial as it requires an incredibly high amount of energy.

The vote on the bill saw many senators flip from undecided to in favor, claiming they are concerned about carbon emissions.

The bill would not only prohibit new mining operations but also refuse the renewal of licenses to those who are already operating in the state. Any new PoW mining operation in the state could only operate if it uses 100% renewable energy.

Bitcoin’s mining consensus mechanism has been one of the hottest topics of debate among policymakers aided by the environmentalist and billionaire lobbies supporting the proof-of-stake mining consensus, which is far less energy-intensive. Greenpeace and Ripple (XRP) co-founder Chris Larsen have been campaigning for a change in the Bitcoin code.

Policymakers often only focus on the high energy consumption by Bitcoin miners, ignoring the fact that a significant chunk of this energy comes from renewable sources, especially in New York where 50% of the energy is produced from renewable sources.

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Criticism of PoW mining gained steam last year at the peak of the bull run. However, by the end of the last year, a MicroStrategy-led Bitcoin mining council report highlighted that more than 60% of the electricity consumption by the BTC network comes from clean sources.

Sustainable energy usage by Bitcoin vs other industries. Source: BMC

The European Parliament proposed a similar PoW mining ban, however, it amended the proposal to remove the ban amid growing public scrutiny.

Experts believe New York’s decision to ban PoW mining would create a domino effect and other states might follow. The U.S is currently the world leader in Bitcoin mining hash rate, accounting for 38% of the network’s mining power.

Pride in the Metaverse: Blockchain tech creates new opportunities for LGBTQ+ people

The Metaverse and NFTs are allowing people across the world to celebrate Pride Month in various ways.

A number of social gatherings have started to take place in the Metaverse as companies across the globe begin to understand the value that virtual interactive environments can have for consumers. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Pride Month — a month-long celebration held in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots — will be celebrated in various metaverse environments this year. 

Pride in the Metaverse creates open access

Akbar Hamid, co-founder of People of Crypto Lab (POC) — an innovation hub dedicated to increasing diversity and representation in Web3 — told Cointelegraph that the Metaverse is an incredible way to allow people around the world to partake in events they may not be allowed to participate in otherwise. “We want Pride Month 2022 to be an event anyone can join, even in countries where people are not allowed to participate,” he said.

Although Pride Month is celebrated openly in many places, 71 countries ​​currently criminalize being LGBTQ+. In order to push against this, Hamid explained that POC has collaborated with The Sandbox — a blockchain-based metaverse project — to launch a virtual diversity, equity and inclusivity hub during Pride Month. Known as Valley of Belonging, this unique youth center will enable people across the world to celebrate, said Hamid:

“Marginalized communities tend to be left behind, so POC’s goal with Valley of Belonging is to ensure that each community has access to events they can openly participate in. And given the current climate of rising discrimination against LGBTQIA+ and other minorities, there has never been a more important time to build a safe space that welcomes all.”

In order to achieve the goal of “belonging,” Simone Berry, co-founder of POC Lab, told Cointelegraph that Valley of Belonging will consist of 8,430 nonfungible token (NFTs) avatars that represent different ethnic, gender and sexual identities. “All of our avatars are non-binary, meaning they don’t identify with any gender or sexual orientation. This is also the first NFT project in The Sandbox that allows users to customize avatars using pronouns,” explained Berry. She added that avatar traits will consist of over 36 different skin shades while incorporating features that celebrate differences like prosthetic limbs, along with cultural identifiers like a hijab.

POC’s avatars featuring NYX makeup. Source: People of Crypto Lab

Berry also noted that NYX Professional Makeup — a subsidiary of L’Oreal — will integrate into The Sandbox to feature voxelized makeup looks, which will further help drive adoption. “In order to demonstrate that makeup is genderless, all of the avatars in our mint, which will take place June 17, will feature makeup from NYX,” she said. Yasmin Dastmalchi, general manager of NYX Professional Makeup, told Cointelegraph that the partnership with POC and The Sandbox is important since it allows diverse communities a forum for true self-expression, noting that the Metaverse “has become a form of digital identity.”

Decentraland will also allow users to openly celebrate Pride Month 2022 in its blockchain-based Metaverse with a month-long event featuring entertainment, experiences and curated content. Iara Dias, head of Metaverse Pride and senior producer at Decentraland, told Cointelegraph that Metapride Land is debuting its headquarters in Decentraland to celebrate Metaverse Pride:

“This will offer a permanent safe space for the global LGBTQIA+ community to engage and meet other members around the world. Users will be able to access the space year-round, not just during Pride Month, further ensuring Decentraland and its partners’ commitment to supporting the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Dias added that Decentraland will host Metaverse Pride on June 11, which is a celebration honoring the LGBTQIA+ community. She elaborated:

“Debuting during Pride, the long-awaited ‘kissing’ emote will allow avatars to kiss each other and express their feelings towards one another. Furthermore, couples from all sexual orientations can get married in the metaverse and receive NFT certificates of their union.”

According to Dias, these features present a unique opportunity for same-sex couples who reside in countries in which they are not allowed to express their commitment. “There will also be drag queens presenting for the first time in the Metaverse, along with a special vogueing-capoeira performer that marks the first time this type of dance and presentation have entered the Metaverse,” she commented.

“Metapride Land” in Decentraland. Source: Decentraland

How safe is the Metaverse?

While it’s notable that both The Sandbox and Decentraland will host Pride events this year to ensure new opportunities and access, it’s important to point out that safety and security are still ongoing challenges in the Metaverse. 

Online communities like gaming chat rooms are notorious for hate speech against racial and sexual minorities. Indeed, budding metaverse communities have been shown to be hotbeds for racism, bigotry and misogyny.

One researcher who recently entered Meta’s social-networking platform Horizon World using an Oculus virtual-reality headset announced that her avatar was raped in the virtual space.

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Given these concerns, Sebastien Borget, co-founder and chief operating office of The Sandbox, told Cointelegraph that the platform is taking security very seriously as more events are hosted virtually. “Education on security in The Sandbox is critical to onboarding the next billion users to the Metaverse,” he said. Borget added that The Sandbox’s recent partnership with hardware wallet Ledger will help promote security in the Metaverse.

Given that Decentraland is also a blockchain-based platform, Dias pointed out that users’ data and privacy protection are paramount. “The only user identifications on Decentraland are usernames and wallet addresses. This allows users who wish to remain anonymous the ability to fully express themselves without the fear of being identified,” she said.

In regard to appropriate behavior, Dias mentioned that Metaverse Pride has laid out behavioral guidelines, allowing users to block others if they experience harassment. “We’ll use non-player characters to offer guidance on how to do this, but we have also made this very user-friendly.”

Web3 takes Pride to new heights

Challenges aside, Web3 as a whole is allowing Pride Month to extend far beyond what has previously been possible. Shedding light on this, Dias commented that compared with real-life Pride events, the Metaverse enables people around the world — even in dangerous places — to participate. In addition, she said that a person’s digital identity defined via an avatar can give users the courage to be whoever they wish. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear stories of people saying their avatar helped them to be brave, and finally come out and be their authentic self.”

A number of artwork NFTs are also being launched to celebrate and raise awareness for Pride Month. For example, Serge Gay Jr. and Dan Nicoletta, both photographers and close friends of Harvey Milk — an American politician and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California — recently launched a limited edition NFT art series inspired by Milk’s legacy.

From “The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza” NFT collection. Source: Serge Gay Jr. and Dan Nicoletta

Nicoletta told Cointelegraph that the goal behind “The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza” NFT collection is to foster support for LGBTQ+ civil rights and within the emerging NFT art market: “I’m not seeing a lot of LGBTQ+ content in that realm yet, so I am excited about the possibilities and to be working in that medium for the first time.”

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Brian Springfield, executive director of The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco, further told Cointelegraph that proceeds from the NFT project will go to the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza to support creating a safe, inclusive space in San Francisco’s Castro district.

“The goal of The Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza NFT Collection is to raise awareness around The Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza project in San Francisco, and to inspire other cities to build similar spaces in their own communities,” he said.

“Castro Street fire escape revelers 1978.” Source: Danny Nicoletta, original image

Pride Icons is another NFT project that aims to highlight the LGBTQ+ community. Regev Gur, chief marketing officer of Pride Icons, told Cointelegraph that the NFT collection features images of important people within the LGBTQ+ community, such as Andy Warhol and Elton John.

Andy Warhol NFT. Source: Pride Icons

Gur shared that he grew up with a gay father who hid his true identity for years. As such, he explained that the biggest goal behind Pride Icons is to put a spotlight on the LGBTQ+ community while making blockchain accessible to those who may not be aware of the benefits associated with the technology: “This is really about education — we need to educate people of all backgrounds on the power of Web3 and NFTs.”

11% of US insurers invest — or are interested in investing — in crypto

Of the 328 CFOs and CIOs representing around half of the global insurance industry, 6% responded their firm was either already invested or considering an investment into cryptocurrencies.

United States-based insurers are the most interested in cryptocurrency investment according to a Goldman Sachs global survey of 328 chief financial and chief investment officers regarding their firm’s asset allocations and portfolios.

The investment banking giant recently released its annual global insurance investment survey, which included responses regarding cryptocurrencies for the first time, finding that 11% of U.S. insurance firms indicated either an interest in investing or a current investment in crypto.

Speaking on the company’s Exchanges at Goldman Sachs podcast on Tuesday, Goldman Sachs global head of insurance asset management Mike Siegel said he was surprised to get any result:

“We surveyed for the first time on crypto, which I thought would get no respondents, but I was surprised. A good 6% of the industry respondents indicated that they’re either invested in crypto or considering investing in crypto.”

Asia-based insurers were next in line, with 6% interested or currently invested, and European insurers came in at only 1%.

The report found cryptocurrencies were in fifth place for the asset class insurers expect to deliver the highest returns over the next 12 months, with 6% ranking it as their first choice, beating United States and European equities.

Around 2% of firms indicated a current crypto investment, and while it’s a small number of firms indicating investment or interest, Goldman Sachs analysts wrote that this level of interest “is still notable.”

On the podcast, Siegel discussed a follow-up survey conducted of crypto-interested firms to understand their motivation behind purchasing:

“We did some follow-up questions on that, and generally, the companies that are either invested or considering crypto are doing so to understand the market and to understand the infrastructure. But if this becomes a transactable currency, they want to have the ability down the road to denominate policies in crypto and also accept premium in crypto, just like they do in, say, dollars or yen or sterling or euro.”

Only 1% of the total surveyed firms said they would increase their crypto position over the next 12 months; 7% said they would maintain their current position; and 92% said they would not invest in crypto over the next year.

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Despite the growing interest, there are still those pessimistic about crypto as 16% said it was an asset class they expected to deliver the lowest returns over the next 12 months. Overall, crypto was the third-lowest ranked asset class on this measure.

Mathew McDermott, the bank’s global head of digital assets, wrote in the report:

“As the crypto market continues to mature, coupled with growing regulatory certainty, a cross-section of institutions are becoming more confident to explore investment opportunities as well as recognizing the disruptive impact of the underlying blockchain technology. I have been positively surprised by the rising adoption by global Asset Managers, who clearly recognize the potential of this market.”

Former product manager at OpenSea charged with insider trading

The charges are related to digital collectibles bought and sold on the NFT marketplace in September 2021.

On Wednesday, United States prosecutors in Manhattan charged Nathaniel Chastain, 31, with insider trading. Chastain is a former product manager at OpenSea, the largest nonfungible token (NFT) marketplace. This will be the first case of its kind regarding digital assets and traditional criminal investigations. 

Prosecutors claim that Chastain bought 45 NFTs through anonymous hot wallets and anonymous accounts on OpenSea and then sold them for a profit shortly after. He allegedly bought them shortly before they were featured on the OpenSea marketplace homepage and sold them for a profit right after. As the product manager, it would have been in his power to choose which NFTs were featured, giving him direct access to the insider information that he, himself, created.

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Included in the claim of 11 separate trades was the NFT called “Spectrum of a Ramenfication Theory” on Sept. 14, 2021, which would have been sold the next morning for almost four times the buying price.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams commented on his office’s commitment to follow up on insider trading in all of its forms. Chastain was charged with money laundering as well as wire fraud. Both charges carry a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

OpenSea claims to have learned about Chastain’s activities, opened up an investigation and asked him to leave when it was clear that he had violated company policy. Soon after, Chastain quit voluntarily and began working on his own project, Oval.

Recently, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong responded to similar allegations of insider trading. The individuals involved could have been either connected to Coinbase or employees. Although Armstrong did not confirm any disciplinary actions or criminal charges toward his employees, he did say that Coinbase was planning to revise its listing process soon to prevent it from happening.