Bitcoin ‘Sextortion’ Scheme Netted Cybercriminals Over $330,000

Blackmailers have reportedly managed to rake in over $330,000 worth of bitcoin, the flagship cryptocurrency, through an email-based ‘sextortion’ campaign that has been ongoing since at least 2017, and saw its activity surge last year.

According to a report published by UK firm Digital Shadows, the cybercriminals received said amount from over 3,100 unique BTC addresses. The funds ended up in 92 different bitcoin addresses believe to belong to the same organization, that could reportedly be making an average of $540 per victim.

The firm’s report, first spotted by The Next Web, tracked a sample of 792,000 emails sent to victims. The ‘sextortionists’ reportedly sent them an email that would include a known password as “proof” they hacked them, and claimed to have video evidence of them seeing adult content online.

The threat was that the video would be published online, if a ransom in BTC wasn’t paid. Last year, Cornell University computer science professor Emin Gün Sirer warned potential victims to “never pay, never negotiate” with cybercriminals trying to extort them.

Per Sirer, the emails were being sent to every email account on the popular website haveibeenpwned, which shows whether emails addresses had their data leaked on well-known online security incidents.

A Sophisticated Operation

The UK firm’s report seems to show the ‘sextortion’ operation was a sophisticated one, as scammers were seemingly trying to hire more people to help them target high-net-work individuals.

These hires could be getting high salaries, up to $768,000 a year, if they had experience in network management, penetration testing, and programming. The cybercriminals have notably also been using social media to target their victims.

The scammers’ capabilities are said to have varied in skill, as while some struggled to distribute a large amount of emails that could get past email server or spam filters, others managed to show high levels of sophistication, with emails sent from accounts specifically created for the campaigns.

Moreover, these campaigns were launched on a global scale, as the servers the emails came from were in five different continents. The highest amount of emails came from Vietnam, Brazil, and India. These servers could, however, have been compromised by the scammers as well.

How Bakkt Can Bring the Crypto Space an Institutional Investor Influx

Cryptocurrency enthusiasts have for years been waiting for institutional investors to enter the space. While the introduction of bitcoin futures contracts on regulated exchanges in late 2017 didn’t gain a lot of traction, but Bakkt may.

Bakkt is a long-awaited bitcoin futures exchange and on-boarding platform from the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) - the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange – and it’s set to launch this year. Bakkt itself has remained tight-lipped over the precise launch date after delaying its launch last year, with ICE CEO Jeff Sprecher in February simply saying “later this year.”

It’s possible that this quarter may see the launch or at least more news about when the exchange is finally coming. At the end of March, Bakkt CEO Kelly Loeffler explained:

While we’re not yet able to provide a launch date, we’re making solid progress in bringing the first physical delivery price discovery contracts for bitcoin to the U.S.

Bakkt’s launch could be a major milestone for the cryptoasset industry. A venture backed by Microsoft and Starbucks, its institutional pedigree alone will switch many cautious investors on. Specifically, the firm is set to help consumers pay for goods and services with cryptocurrencies, with Starbucks being the flagship retailer in its arsenal.

Bakkt’s Bitcoin futures contracts will be the first physically-settled derivatives on a regulated trading platform. This means investors will receive the contract’s underlying asset, bitcoin, when it expires.

Currently the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) offers cash-settled bitcoin futures contracts, meaning investors get the equivalent of BTC’s value in fiat when the contracts expire. This is seen by some as a major development in the cryptocurrency space, as it shows traditional finance is willing to interact with the nascent cryptoasset industry.

It’s worth noting that earlier this year the ICE’s CEO called Bakkt a “bit of a moonshot bet,”  as it was organized in a way “very different than the way ICE typically does business.” The firm has its own offices and management team, and could undergo more rounds of financing in the future.

Bakkt And a Potential Bitcoin ETF

What’s significant about Bakkt’s launch beyond this, is that it may bolster the chances of a Bitcoin Exchange-Traded fund (ETF) being approved. Such a product would make it easier for institutional investors to gain exposure to cryptocurrencies.

In August, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rejected nine other ETF applications, in particular highlighting how those applying hadn’t provided evidence that “bitcoin futures markets are of significant size’” for an ETF to be launched.

Once Bakkt is launched its trading volumes may very well help quell the SEC’s concerns over the bitcoin futures markets’ small size as institutions and other investors may feel comfortable entering it. Larger futures contracts trading volume, increased liquidity and a well-established company involved may prove enough to convince the SEC that the time is right for a Bitcoin ETF.

Bakkt therefore represents a very significant milestone for a maturing cryptoasset industry and may well herald the “institutional influx” that many have been anticipating since 2017. Despite the markets remaining relatively flat throughout 2019 these looming decisions in the U.S. have the power to move the entire industry forward, for better or worse.