A turning point in Bitcoin crime, with an unusual couple in the spotlight
The new age Bonnie and Clyde of Bitcoin playing hide and seek with the government, in a bitcoin crime incident.
When unknown hackers broke into cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex in 2016, it shocked the fledgling digital currency world and sparked suspicion about who might have taken $71 million in Bitcoin at the time, in one of the incidents of bitcoin crime.
It seemed like a theft getaway car always parked outside the bank, secured and loaded with cash, and now it took off. However, unlike regular financial transactions, Bitcoin trades are public, so shifting the currency could indicate who was responsible for the robbery. So, as Bitcoin’s value surged, the wealth lay in plain sight online in tiny fractions for six years.
It felt as if the ground shook in cryptocurrencies’ weird and sometimes mysterious realm. Crypto had risen into the mainstream in the years after the Bitfinex breach, and the theft had become notorious: a bounty worth more than $4 billion. Finally, it appeared that the hackers had surfaced.
The stolen Bitcoin, however, had not been relocated by the hackers. The government had seized it as part of an investigation into two New York City businesswomen: one, Ilya Lichtenstein, 34, a little-known Russian émigré and tech investor, and the other, his wife, Heather Morgan, 31, an American businesswoman and would-be social media influencer with a persona as a satirical rapper known as Razzlekhan.
They were accused of siphoning off parts of the stolen currency and trying to hide it in a complicated network of digital wallets and internet aliases. Up to 25 years in jail could be faced if convicted of that and a second conspiracy charge. Some of the couple’s friends were taken aback by the arrests, which appeared to contradict prosecutors’ image of them as skilled thieves with heaps of cash, various phony identities, and dozens of encrypted gadgets stowed in their Manhattan flat.
At the time, Mr. Lichtenstein and Ms. Morgan were aspiring tech entrepreneurs. According to Mr. Lichtenstein’s LinkedIn profile, he specialized in cryptocurrency and coding, while Ms. Morgan had recently returned from the Middle after working on currency markets.
Little is known about the pair other from Ms. Morgan’s evident demeanor. Their lawyer team, headed by Mr. Bansal, told the federal magistrate that the couple had been together for seven years and married for three years during arguments over whether they should be released on bail.
The judge ordered that the couple be released on multimillion-dollar bonds. Still, a federal judge in Washington halted their release and set the hearing for Monday at the government’s request.
In court documents, the government has described Mr. Lichtenstein and Ms. Morgan as “very clever crooks.” Prosecutors said the pair had different assets, including hundreds of millions of dollars in virtual currency stolen from the Bitfinex market and not recovered and access to numerous fraudulent identities purchased on the darknet, a hidden area of the internet used for illicit transactions.