Victims lost tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of digital currency in the second half of 2021 after a spate of incidents in which thugs forced them to unlock their smartphones, according to a new report.
The City of London police provided Freedom of Information data to The Guardian which revealed that criminal gangs are increasingly combining physical threats with cyber-knowhow to part individuals with their virtual currency.
Several anonymized incidents cited in the report reveal the type of opportunism driving the surge in crime.
In one, an individual trying to order a cab on their phone had it seized by muggers, who then transferred £5000 of Ethereum from their Coinbase account before handing it back.
In another, a man was held against a wall while thugs opened his device using facial recognition before transferring £6000 of Ripple out of his account.
Sometimes the losses are even higher.
One account tells of a man accosted while he was vomiting under a bridge. The mugger reportedly forced him to unlock his phone via fingerprint scan and then stole over £28,000, including cryptocurrency.
Another victim had £10,000 stolen from their Crypto.com account after pickpockets operating in a pub grabbed his smartphone. He believes they had previously shoulder-surfed his PIN.
Although blockchain technically allows investigators to trace the route of transactions, police don’t have the resources to look at relatively small losses like the ones above, according to the report.
However, if these incidents could be pieced together and linked to a larger organized crime operation, there may be more chance of a formal investigation, it added.
Given the above happened in the relatively small area patrolled by the City of London police, the true scale of these emerging crimes could be even greater.
Raising user awareness will be an important part of any police response.
“You wouldn’t walk down the street holding £50 notes and counting them. That should apply to people with crypto assets,” said Phil Ariss, head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council cryptocurrency team.