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New ransomware headache as crooks dump bitcoin for rival cryptocurrencies

The switch to new digital currencies will make life more difficult, according to one police chief.

While bitcoin was the preferred way of paying to free PCs from ransomware or buying illegal services on the dark web, that might not be the case for much longer -- and tracking down and online criminals could become harder as a result.

Bitcoin remains a popular currency among cybercriminals, but its high profile is also causing them certain headaches. While some are sitting on large stockpiles of the currency, for others, it is causing issues, forcing them to alter the prices of their products on a daily or hourly basis.

That volatility could provide a means of getting rich quick for cryptocurrency investors, but a crash could also result in criminals losing everything. As a result -- and because bitcoin doesn't offer full anonymity -- some criminals are moving their focus to other forms of cryptocurrency, such as Monero, Ethereum, and Zcash.

Launched in 2014, Monero is growing in popularity, thanks to additional security and privacy features which mean transactions can't be traced back to any particular user or address. Transaction histories are also kept private.

Consequently, it's gaining traction on the dark web and underground forums, according to law enforcement officials -- and has also been used as a means of collecting ransom payments.

See also: Ransomware: An executive guide to one of the biggest menaces on the web

If more cybercriminals move towards other forms of cryptocurrency, it will make tackling cybercrime more difficult for law enforcement. It may also create a new headache for organisations that have bought bitcoin in the past in case they were hit by a ransomware attack, and who will now have to stockpile alternative cryptocurrencies too.

"We'll see a progressive shift in 2018 towards criminal use of cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin, making it generally more challenging for law enforcement to counter," Rob Wainwright, executive director of Europol, warned in a Tweet.

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Europol has warned that criminals are moving towards other, more difficult to trace forms of cryptocurrency.

Image: iStock

Europol's 2017 Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment report says: "the abuse of Bitcoin remains a key enabler for criminal conduct on the internet", and warns that other cryptocurrencies are on the rise -- especially the likes of Monero or Zcash, which "appear to have more to offer criminals wishing to operate with greater anonymity".

"While Bitcoin remains a key facilitator for cybercrime, other cryptocurrencies such as Monero, Ethereum and Zcash are also gaining popularity within the digital underground," the report says.

Bloomberg has also reported that criminals are ditching bitcoin for even more secure cryptocurrencies. While bitcoin does offer users a level of anonymity, it's not impossible to uncover the owners of bitcoin wallets -- a tactic which has helped cybersecurity researchers and the authorities track down and arrest some cybercriminals.

However, it's this sort of success that is arguably persuading some criminals to move away from bitcoin.

"Successful law enforcement activity related to bitcoin-using cybercriminals may push users further towards alternative cryptocurrencies," said the IOCTA report.

One of those groups is reportedly a hacking group working on behalf of North Korea which stole Monero from a South Korean company last summer.

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