$3.4B of Bitcoin in a popcorn tin: The Silk Street hacker’s story

The place would you disguise $3.4 billion value of Bitcoin? For James Zhong, the best spot was to retailer it on a pc — with its circuitry uncovered — positioned in a used Cheetos popcorn tin hidden in a toilet closet underneath a pile of blankets.

Zhong, now 32, was sentenced to a 12 months in federal jail final month for a hack that came about nearly 11 years in the past. His sufferer? Ross Ulbricht, the proprietor of the Silk Street darkish net drug market the place Bitcoin discovered its first vital use case, as an underground foreign money. Immediately, Ulbricht is himself serving two life sentences plus 40 years for his half in working the unlawful market, however darknet markets proceed to flourish.

Considerably mockingly, billionaire Zhong was caught as a consequence of a switch of simply $1,000 value of BTC to an deal with he’d used beforehand.

Prosecutors acknowledged that Zhong spent lavishly on luxuries. (Zhong’s social media)

Life-style of a crypto billionaire

How a lot is $3.4 billion? One might construct one other Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest tower, situated in Dubai ($1.5 billion) — and make the profitable bid on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” — the most costly portray ever offered ($450 million) — and nonetheless have over a billion left over to buy a sports activities crew, yacht and fleet of personal jets. It’s nearly past comprehension.

BTC computer
The pc containing most of Zhong’s Bitcoin, present in a popcorn tin. (United States Division of Justice)

However Zhong lived within the American metropolis of Gainesville, Georgia, the place round $1 million is sufficient to buy the luxurious four-bedroom lakefront property he known as dwelling. Based on some sources, gaining consideration from girls was among the many key motivations of Zhong — who’s autistic and was reportedly bullied at school. Court docket paperwork trace at his lavish way of life:

“Certainly, within the 51 months earlier than legislation enforcement’s overt search of Zhong’s residences, Zhong dissipated roughly $16 million of crime proceeds, spending lavishly on actual property investments, luxurious merchandise, journey, resorts, nightclubs, and different bills.”

If his on-line posts are something to go by, Zhong can be stated to have been one thing of a celebration animal, utilizing cocaine on weekends and bragging about being drunk whereas keeping track of the markets. Maybe this comes with the territory of stealing billions from a drug kingpin.

Zhong party
Zhong memed about his occasion habits on the Bitcointalk discussion board.

All this was presumably financed with the roughly 2,900 BTC that the federal government didn’t get well from his theft. Zhong stole 50,000 BTC and transformed his free Bitcoin Money into one other 3,500 BTC. Nevertheless, solely 50,591 BTC was seized.

Silk Street

The place did all this start? Probably with a Bitcointalk consumer named Teppy, who in June 2010 made a submit titled “A Heroin Retailer” outlining “a thought experiment about how a heroin retailer may function, accepting Bitcoins, and ending drug prohibition within the course of.” The submit linked Bitcoin to libertarianism and steered that this may allow the brand new foreign money to turn out to be “really disruptive.”

It was a cutting-edge idea. “Pizza Day,” which noticed Bitcoin exchanged for real-world items for the primary time — a pair of pizzas for 10,000 BTC — had occurred simply three weeks prior.

Eight months later, in February 2011, Silk Street opened for enterprise within the hidden again alleys of the net. “To entry the Tor darkish net, customers must obtain particular software program,” explains Ethan Lou, an occasional Journal contributor and the writer of As soon as a Bitcoin Miner. He speaks from expertise. Tor, he notes, has many legit makes use of for individuals who worth privateness, together with leaking info to the press.

“It’s fairly straightforward you probably have some primary tech know-how. When you get in, you see that it seems just like the web from the Nineties.”

Sellers might record their objects on the market on Silk Street, and the web site would maintain funds in escrow till objects have been acquired by the client, who might charge the merchandise and vendor. Usually, directors would adjudicate disputes. In months, the positioning grew to host over 10,000 listings of managed substances, ultimately processing round 1.5 million transactions. One early consumer was podcaster Peter McCormack, who known as it “Amazon for medication” and advised Journal how he wound up in hospital after three grams of cocaine arrived someday and he received carried away — actually, in an ambulance.

Authorities shut in

By June, U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin had written to the legal professional common and the Drug Enforcement Company, demanding they take motion towards {the marketplace}.

A few of these actions have been off-the-books, resembling these by DEA Particular Agent Carl Mark Drive IV, the “lead spy” who in 2015 was sentenced to six.5 years for varied crimes linked with the case. This included demanding exchanges freeze BTC accounts with a view to withdraw the cash for himself in addition to faking the demise of web site administrator Curtis Inexperienced, whom he had truly arrested, with a view to acquire cash from DPR, who allegedly wished him useless.

Zhong had autism, and prosecutors stated he spent lavishly. (Social media)

The web site got here to an finish on Oct. 1, 2013, when a pair began bickering in San Fransisco’s Glen Park Library. This caught the eye of the close by Ulbricht, who turned his head from the laptop computer he was engaged on. It was a lure. At that second, FBI brokers swooped in from behind bookshelves and grabbed Ulbricht’s laptop computer earlier than he might log off and lock away his 144,000 BTC — the proof he was DPR.

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Ulbricht acquired a double life sentence plus 40 years with no risk of parole. Many within the Bitcoin group and past have criticized the sentence as unjust, significantly contemplating the nonviolent nature of his crime. FreeRoss, a corporation devoted to advocating for his launch, archives statements by politicians and trade leaders talking in favor of his launch. As Lou asks:

“Are two life sentences affordable for somebody who did one thing that’s nonviolent?”

A pirate’s billions

Throughout Ulbricht’s sentencing, the funds earned by the positioning have been declared proceeds of crime, which means the Bitcoin was confiscatable by the U.S. authorities. The roughly 144,000 BTC discovered on Ulbricht’s laptop computer was now U.S. property.

“Beneath U.S. legislation, authorities can successfully carry a case towards cash or different items and seize them underneath civil forfeiture legal guidelines with out essentially arresting the individual possessing them. This naturally extends to digital currencies like Bitcoin,” explains Jason Corbett, a lawyer whose agency, Silk Authorized, makes a speciality of cryptocurrencies.

Cheetos, actually? The place else would you retain billions in Bitcoin? (United States Division of Justice)

The federal government disposed of its newfound Bitcoin by way of a collection of auctions held by the U.S. Marshals Service in 2014. Enterprise capitalist Tim Draper famously bought 30,000 BTC for $18 million. Functionally, the auctions legitimized Bitcoin by eradicating all doubt relating to its legality: How might the federal government promote one thing it considers unlawful?

However a number of the Bitcoin was lacking, all traceable from the Silk Street addresses. About 50,000 had been stolen from Silk Street’s sizzling wallets again in September 2012.

It was not a complicated hack. Zhong deposited 500 BTC into the Silk Street platform, solely to make 5 withdrawals for 500 BTC a number of seconds later, tricking the pockets software program into returning 2,500 BTC to him. This was repeated a number of instances utilizing totally different accounts and rising quantities, netting Zhong “roughly 50,000 Bitcoin out of Silk Street in only a few days,” in response to court docket paperwork. On the time, this quantity of Bitcoin was value round $600,000.

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Sudden Bitcoin Money windfall

In 2017, Bitcoin was forked in a transfer championed by Roger Ver and Jihan Wu. This allowed each Bitcoin holder to redeem 1 BCH for every Bitcoin they held.

Many proponents believed that Bitcoin Money was the “true” Bitcoin, however Zhong, writing because the aptly named “Loaded,” took to the Bitcointalk discussion board to disagree. That summer time, he went on to alternate his 50,000 BCH for 3,500 further BTC. Because the U.S. authorities views the stolen Silk Street BTC as proceeds of crime, it equally views the BCH later assigned to them as equally confiscatable.

Zhong BCH
Zhong, writing because the aptly named “Loaded” on the Bitcointalk discussion board.

As a decade handed, the worth of Zhong’s stolen treasure grew exponentially into the billions. Nevertheless, with Zhong’s blockchain signature pointing to the misplaced Silk Street cash, it was solely a matter of time earlier than U.S. investigators took discover. There have been, and doubtless nonetheless are, eyes on the discussion board on the middle of the Bitcoin motion, the place Ulbricht himself had posted underneath the identify “Altoid.”

That’s the path that ultimately led Trevor McAleenan, a particular agent with the U.S. Inside Income Service’s Felony Investigation Division, to rummage by means of the contents of Zhang’s toilet closets in 2022 in the hunt for “roughly 53,500 [BTC in] Silk Street Crime Proceeds.” He recovered 50,591 BTC, which, “utilizing a conservative estimate of the bottom spot value of BTC on the date of the search,” amounted to $3,388,817,011.90.

Not a tin pot setup

Although Zhong hid a lot of his BTC in a tin, Particular Agent McAleenan described his setup as refined, made up of “a number of pc servers, digital personal networks, chilly wallets, digital machines, quite a few layers of encryption, and a number of Bitcoin nodes.” Over the primary a number of years following his 2012 heist, Zhong stored his loot on two addresses of roughly 40,000 BTC and 10,000 BTC.

Maybe in an try and make the connection to the hack seem extra distant, he started periodically transferring the Bitcoin — for instance, splitting the ten,000 BTC deal with into 10 addresses holding 1,000 BTC every in 2020.

The lakefront dwelling the place Zhong stored his treasure. $3.4 billion might purchase round 3,600 such homes. (Zillow)

In an obvious try and additional obfuscate the funds, that very same 12 months he “pushed roughly 750 BTC of the Silk Street Crime Proceeds by means of a decentralized Bitcoin mixer,” which is software program that successfully mixes cryptocurrency from varied addresses collectively to make it unclear from which supply a last steadiness comes, thereby aiming to interrupt a connection to tracked cash resembling these concerned in Silk Street.

Whereas technically anybody can use a web site like Blockchain.com to observe transactions — together with Zhong’s — on the Bitcoin chain, it’s value noting that the IRS went past this, utilizing blockchain tracing and forensic software program to string suspicious addresses collectively extra simply. Whereas such software program doesn’t add any new info, it makes deciphering the info simpler.

Feds swoop in

Regardless of his VPNs and encryption and varied makes an attempt to cover the Silk Street cash, Zhong should have slipped up sooner or later, because the IRS was capable of observe him by his IP deal with — a singular identifier assigned to every system that connects to the web. This IP deal with was then matched to data held with Zhong’s web service supplier in addition to an alternate the place he despatched some cash to be traded, presumably obtained by a warrant requiring these data to be launched.

Zhong’s ground protected. (United States Division of Justice)

The profitable restoration of the Bitcoin got here right down to figuring out the actions of the cash in query and following them to an alternate the place Zhong had deposited and offered 119 BTC, value someplace within the area of $1 million, in 2019. Regardless of makes an attempt to combine and obfuscate, the cash’ connection to Zhong and Silk Street was confirmed by a switch of a mere 0.07750842 BTC — round $1,000 — in leftover change that was despatched from Zhong’s account to a Bitcoin deal with beforehand used to maneuver 1,000 BTC of Silk Street funds.

This means that Zhong was caught — dropping him $3.4 billion — as a consequence of laziness in reusing an deal with as an alternative of making a brand new one, or even perhaps for worrying about 0.08 BTC when promoting 118 BTC, to start with. The Swan Bitcoin alternate, for instance, explicitly discourages customers from reusing addresses as a consequence of “damaging implications resembling diminished privateness and diminished safety,” which Zhong’s case seems to exhibit.

And so, a search warrant was issued and executed about two years later, in November 2021.

“The identical BTC deal with managed by Particular person-1 that acquired change of roughly 0.07750842 BTC in 2019, as indicated within the Alternate data, is also related to a BTC deal with that Particular person-1 used to switch 1,000 BTC that Particular person-1 had unlawfully obtained from Silk Street,” wrote McAleenan.

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Zhong’s different loot

Along with cash held on a pc, Zhong had different belongings unfold round his home inside a kitchen drawer and a ground protected stuffed with tightly sure stacks of money. There was additionally a tiny quantity of silver and gold bullion and a set of quite peculiar cash referred to as Casascius cash.

Physical bitcoin
The Casascius bodily Bitcoin present in Zhong’s kitchen drawer, making the U.S. authorities an unintentional collector. (United States Division of Justice)

Casascius cash are bodily Bitcoin on which the personal key’s hidden underneath a peelable hologram sticker. They’re historic artifacts of the Bitcoin motion courting again to 2011. Journal’s 2021 piece on the subject declared such cash as “the final word privateness cash, as there’s nothing to affiliate the proprietor with an deal with and they are often traded one million instances with out ever leaving a file on the blockchain.”

“Theoretically, after all, this may make bodily Bitcoin a really enticing approach to launder cash or pay for drug offers.”

Zhong seems to have executed simply that, successfully buying and selling his red-hot “legal proceeds” for pre-Silk Street 2011 Bitcoin that seems solely clear.

So far as we all know, nevertheless, Zhong cooperated with authorities and returned all his remaining Bitcoin, an element that performed a job — alongside along with his younger age and autism — in his getting a brief sentence and the extra critical cash laundering expenses dropped, which might sometimes result in a few years in jail.

In Zhong’s case, the federal government appeared way more keen on securing the “legal proceeds” for themselves quite than Zhong, whose legal exercise amounted to stealing from one other legal.

Had Zhong hacked every other dodgy web site, it’s unlikely authorities would have been keen on catching up with him a decade after the very fact. Based on Corbett, wire fraud is the digital equal of mail fraud and has turn out to be a type of catch-all for prosecutors, as just about any monetary crime at the moment includes using the web.

“Zhong was sentenced for wire fraud dedicated towards Silk Street, which is a reminder that fraud continues to be fraud even when dedicated towards a legal enterprise.”

The darkish facet

Regardless of Ulbricht’s sentencing, the Dread Pirate Roberts might dwell on. The identify got here from the film The Princess Bride, wherein DPR was not a single feared sea captain however a title handed on from pirate to pirate. True to the parable, Silk Street 2.0 was launched inside a month of the arrest, working for 2 years till Blake Benthall, a former administrator of the unique Silk Street, was additionally arrested by the FBI. Regardless of this, a minimum of two websites calling themselves Silk Street 3.0 have been quickly once more operational, together with a myriad of comparable marketplaces utilizing totally different manufacturers.

In As soon as a Bitcoin Miner, Lou writes about his expertise visiting certainly one of these marketplaces out of curiosity whereas a pupil. He quickly spent nearly half a Bitcoin — about $100 — to buy a small quantity of LSD, which by no means truly arrived. Naturally, there was excess of simply medication supplied:

“Numerous marketplaces supplied stolen bank card particulars and passwords, medication and weapons. You may additionally rent somebody to say the correct phrases to the police so {that a} tactical crew would raid a home of your selection, a course of known as ‘swatting.’ My buddies and I even discovered purported assassinations on provide – simply unbelievable.”

Based on Carnegie Mellon analysis professor Nicolas Christin, as a lot as “4.5% to 9% of all alternate trades” within the early days of Bitcoin have been associated to the darkish net drug market. Contemplating this, there isn’t any denying that the black market was among the many first use circumstances of cryptocurrency, a truth that also fuels apprehension among the many public relating to cryptocurrency. Lou, a journalist, takes a barely extra optimistic view:

“Even when the use case just isn’t a really good one, I feel it nonetheless is a use case. As they are saying, any publicity is sweet publicity.”

Elias Ahonen author at Cointelegraph Magazine

Elias Ahonen

Elias Ahonen is a Finnish-Canadian writer primarily based in Dubai who has labored around the globe working a small blockchain consultancy after shopping for his first Bitcoins in 2013. His e-book ‘Blockland’ (hyperlink beneath) tells the story of the trade. He holds an MA in Worldwide & Comparative Legislation whose thesis offers with NFT & metaverse regulation.

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