Notorious Albanian gangs in the UK have a new trick up their sleeves. They are using cryptocurrencies for money-laundering operations, and it's making life hard for the police.
Albanian gangs have been heavily implicated in the UK's cocaine market, a business estimated to be worth around £5bn ($6.23bn) annually. The Albanian criminal network is one of the most sophisticated in Europe, with close links to the Colombian drug cartels.
The Albanian street dealers, known as the Hellbanianz, are also using social media for flashing their riches and recruiting new members, gaining hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers in the process. Some jailed gang members are even posting and sharing pictures and videos from inside their cells.
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Now, Balkan criminals have taken up the use of financial technology to stay one step ahead of the authorities. The head of organized crime for the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), Peter Goodman, recently reported that intelligence has shown that the Albanians gangs are using "cryptocurrencies and bitcoin cashpoints" for money laundering.
Derbyshire's chief constable further added that the increased use of technologies by organized crime groups means that police authorities now have to come up with a new approach to tackle organized crime. The authorities are also seeking how to improve predictive policing techniques.
The relationship between cryptocurrencies and organized crime is complex. Cryptocurrencies have been considered a vulnerability when it comes to tackling money laundering.
Criminals are also wary of the lack of regulation surrounding the international cryptocurrency system, exploiting similar issues when it comes to conducting illegal deals. And as these criminal networks become more prominent, they are also eager to explore the different opportunities that technology offers.
According to Michael J Oghia, a Balkans-based internet governance consultant, while cryptocurrencies offer a wide range of benefits, they also have the potential to be used for malicious purposes by bad actors.
"In the case of cryptocurrencies, they are simply an extension of the ongoing struggle between bad actors and cybersecurity and security authorities that are working to counter online threats," Oghia tells ZDNet.
"One of the biggest differences, though, is that – unlike issues regarding encryption or malware – cryptocurrency is used by organized crime and other nefarious actors in a way that combines illegal offline actions with a technology that was designed to maximize privacy, security, decentralization, and anonymity."
The critical component of using cryptocurrencies for money laundering is that they provide a decentralized mechanism that is difficult to follow.
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However, tracing it is not impossible, and law-enforcement agencies are significantly expanding their expertise in forensic accounting.
"As technology is evolving, so are the ways how transactions can be tracked. For instance, all transactions are recorded on the publicly accessible blockchain ledger," Oghia explains.
"By combining those transaction details with other information and analytical techniques, law-enforcement agencies and cybersecurity experts are finding ways to trace such actors – though it's still a slow process."