Cryptocurrency Crime Hits New High in Value

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A representation of the virtual cryptocurrency bitcoin.

Photo: EDGAR SU/REUTERS

The dollar amount collected through cryptocurrency-based crime hit a record high in 2021, as the volume of cryptocurrency transactions overall grew into tens of trillions of dollars, according to blockchain data platform Chainalysis Inc.

However, the volume of illicit activities remains a small share of the total cryptocurrency transactions volume, according to a preview of Chainalysis’s 2022 Crypto Crime Report to be published in February.

The volume of cryptocurrency transactions grew to $15.8 trillion in 2021, up 567% from 2020, in a sign that the trading of digital assets is becoming increasingly mainstream. Illicit transactions totaled $14 billion in 2021, up 79% from $7.8 billion the previous year. But illicit transactions only made up 0.15% of cryptocurrency transaction volume in 2021.

In its report, Chainalysis warns that its tracked volume of illicit activity is likely to rise later as the company identifies more bad actors and incorporates data gained from that into its historical analysis. The company added that with the exception of 2019, which was notable for the PlusToken cryptocurrency scam, bad actors have made up a smaller component of overall cryptocurrency transaction volume over the past few years.

Chainalysis also warns that the rise of DeFi, or decentralized finance—an umbrella term for financial services offered on public blockchains—is a particularly menacing threat to the sector.

Out of the total of about $3.2 billion in cryptocurrency stolen in 2021, 72% was stolen from DeFi protocols, according to Chainalysis.

DeFi also was an increasingly popular way of money laundering, according to Chainalysis. The use of DeFi as a way to launder money increased 1,964% between 2020 and 2021, according to the company.

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Write to Mengqi Sun at mengqi.sun@wsj.com and David Smagalla at david.smagalla@wsj.com

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