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The Top 5 Cryptos Used By Cybercriminals on the Dark Web

While there are plenty of benefits crypto can offer, this industry also has a more illicit side. Cryptocurrency has become popular among cybercriminals looking to launder money and make illegal transactions on the dark web. So why are malicious actors flocking to crypto, and which assets are the most commonly used on the dark web?

Why Do Cybercriminals Use Crypto?

Unlike traditional money, cryptocurrencies are private. Say you send money to someone via bank transfer. This person will be able to see your name on the transaction receipt. Other payment data, such as bank account numbers and sort codes, are also held by many parties, like the companies we have set up direct debits with.

While this isn’t outright dangerous, it undeniably exposes some of your personal information.

Cryptocurrency tackles this issue by concealing all user information within a transaction, except for the sender and recipient’s wallet address. Your name, wallet provider, and contact details are not displayed on the blockchain within the transaction details.

This provides a lot more privacy than traditional money can. With crypto, you can conceal your identity and other personal information when you move assets around, meaning it’s harder for anyone to track your actions.

Because of this added layer of privacy, cybercriminals now use cryptocurrency to move illegally used or stolen funds around. Maybe a malicious actor wants to buy drugs using Bitcoin, or subscribe to a ransomware-as-a-service platform. Even the financing of terrorist acts can be conducted with cryptocurrency.

Doing this with cryptocurrency allows cybercriminals to dodge law enforcement more effectively.

According to Chainalysis, the number of illicit addresses sending cryptocurrency rose by a shocking 68 percent in 2022. In total, almost $24 billion of crypto was transferred by scammers, hackers, and other cybercriminals. Bitcoin makes up a large chunk of illegally used crypto, but there are other assets gaining notoriety in these realms, too.

So, which cryptocurrencies are being used in this way?

1. Bitcoin (BTC)

Bitcoin isn’t just the most popular cryptocurrency in above-board markets. This asset is widely used on dark web marketplaces.

Bitcoin can be used to purchase malware, drugs, illegal firearms, unlawful content, and other items on the dark web. Bitcoin is used in money laundering to cover criminals’ tracks as well.

Many ransomware attackers also request that their victims pay their demanded ransoms in Bitcoin, making the payment less traceable from the get-go.

Bitcoin Cash is similarly used on dark web marketplaces, though it is dwarfed by Bitcoin’s illicit adoption. However, Bitcoin Cash does offer faster transaction times and lower fees compared to Bitcoin, which might be why it’s somewhat caught on in criminal realms.

While Bitcoin is certainly a popular asset on the dark web, it has one glaring flaw: its pseudonymity. Bitcoin does not provide users full anonymity, as a wallet address can technically be used to track down the user’s identity. This process can be challenging but is possible nonetheless. In fact, most cryptocurrencies are pseudonymous, not anonymous.

Cybercriminals have become aware of this, which is why many have turned to Monero.

2. Monero (XMR)

monero coin being held in hand
Image Credit: FXTM Thailand/Flickr

Unlike the majority of cryptos out there, Monero is a privacy coin. This means that it is specifically designed to keep user information private.

Monero doesn’t just hide names and contact details. If you conduct a transaction using Monero, your wallet address will also be kept private. Monero does this via stealth addresses; one-time wallet addresses that are disposed of once a single transaction is over. By using a different wallet address each time, it becomes incredibly difficult for a user to be tracked down.

All Monero users must use shielded addresses when trading XMR. Ring signatures are also used in Monero transactions, which shields public keys and transaction amounts.

In a 2021 study conducted by Holland FinTech, it was found that 79 percent of dark web markets accept Monero payments. Granted, over 91 percent were found to accept Bitcoin, too, but an acceptance rate of almost 80 percent clearly shows how popular Monero has gotten among cybercriminals.

Like Bitcoin, Monero has also been requested for payments by ransomware attackers. Some attackers have even offered to lower the requested ransom amount if the victim pays in Monero over Bitcoin. Again, this is likely due to Monero’s status as a privacy coin that can offer total anonymity.

3. Litecoin (LTC)

Litecoin is very similar to Bitcoin in its design. In fact, the cryptocurrency and blockchain were created using Bitcoin’s source code. Because of this, Litecoin offers the same pseudonymity as Bitcoin. However, Litecoin can offer faster transaction times too, meaning users don’t have to wait hours for their payments or money movements to be processed and verified.

The same privacy as Bitcoin but faster? It’s not surprising that cybercriminals have adopted Litecoin as a form of payment on the dark web.

In the same Holland FinTech study mentioned previously, it was found that 21 percent of dark web platforms accept Litecoin payments. Evidently, Litecoin isn’t nearly as popular among cybercriminals as Bitcoin and Monero, but its presence on illicit marketplaces is certainly quite solid.

Just a few years prior to this study, another was conducted by Recorded Future. Surprisingly, it was found here that Litecoin was the second-most popular crypto on dark web marketplaces. It seems that Monero has somewhat replaced Litecoin on the dark web over the past few years, likely due to its heightened privacy features.

4. Zcash (ZEC)

Zcash on the Red Background to Represent Private Transaction

Zcash is another popular privacy coin. Like Monero, Zcash allows users to conceal their wallet addresses when conducting transactions. But unlike Monero, Zcash gives you the choice of using a transparent, public address, or a shielded, private address. In this way, it’s sort of a semi-private cryptocurrency.

But either way, you can use Zcash to keep yourself anonymous, and this perk has caught the attention of malicious actors.

It might be Zcash’s semi-private design that has made it less desirable among cybercriminals. After all, Monero is far more popular in general and offers the benefit of anonymity across the board.

5. Dash (DASH)

Dash is another noteworthy example of a popular crypto among cybercriminals. In simple terms, the Dash blockchain works by scrambling transactions to make its users hard to trace and identify. Like Zcash, Dash’s anonymity features are optional.

This asset isn’t used as often as the other examples listed here, but still has a small presence on illicit platforms. In fact, Holland FinTech found in the aforementioned study that just 3 percent of dark web vendors accept Dash payments.

We may see Dash grow in prevalence on the dark web, but other privacy coins, like Monero and Zcash, may soon replace it entirely.

Cryptocurrencies Aren’t Always Used for Good

Millions of people have invested in crypto, but a proportion of these individuals don’t have the most benign goals in mind. Crypto’s increase privacy over typical cash gives it an edge that cybercriminals love. After all, what kind of criminal wants to be found?


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