Russian nationals identified in a Justice Department indictment released Friday used cryptocurrency exchanges as part of an alleged scheme to mislead U.S. citizens leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
The indictment, part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s on-going investigation into possible election interference by Russia, linked 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups to alleged misinformation campaigns spread in the U.S. public through Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR).
The Russian nationals and their co-conspirators allegedly stole social security numbers, home addresses, and other information from U.S. citizens to create bogus accounts on PayPal (PYPL) as well as unspecified online crytopcurrency exchanges, the indictment said.
The groups also bought fake U.S. driver’s license numbers and other common identification documents that they used to “maintain their accounts at PayPal and elsewhere, including online cryptocurrency exchanges.”
Although the indictment doesn’t specify what the Russian nationals used their cryptocurrency accounts for, it does say that the group’s fake bank and PayPal accounts “were used to purchase advertisements on Facebook” that promoted its messages to misinform the U.S. public.
Criminals have used cryptocurrencies and its promise of anonymity as a way to carry out illegal activities like receiving ransom payments and selling banned goods without being caught.
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In July, the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network levied a $110 million fine against the Russia-based cryptocurrency exchange BTC-e for facilitating “transactions involving ransomware, computer hacking, identity theft, tax refund fraud schemes, public corruption, and drug trafficking.”
Although the BTC-e exchange shut down after the fine, tech website Coindesk noted in September that it appears to have been resurrected as a new exchange called WEX that claimed “that it did not receive any funds from BTC-e, while at the same time alleging that it would abide by anti-money laundering and know-your-customer laws.”