Justice Department leaders are expanding their crackdown on cyber criminals and cryptocurrency abuse, a top official said

Justice Department leaders are expanding their crackdown on cyber criminals and cryptocurrency abuse, a top official said
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.AP Photo/Susan Walsh
  • Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said DOJ will seek to "break up" the ransomware business model.
  • Monaco announced the new director of an enforcement team focused on crime involving cryptocurrency.

A top Justice Department official on Thursday said the federal government's recent and high-profile crackdown on the illegal use of cryptocurrency is only just beginning.

In a virtual address to the Munich Cyber Security Conference, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said the FBI is forming a new team — called the Virtual Asset Exploitation Unit — that will bring together investigators with expertise in cryptocurrency, blockchain analysis, and virtual asset seizure.

Monaco added that the Justice Department's National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team, announced last fall, has staffed up with a dozen prosecutors who played a role in last week's seizure of more than $3.6 billion in Bitcoin that was stolen in the 2016 hack of the cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex.

In her remarks, Monaco named the enforcement team's new director: Eun Young Choi, who as an assistant US attorney in Manhattan led the prosecution of a Russian who was sentenced in 2021 to 12 years in prison for his involvement in a hacking campaign that targeted JPMorgan Chase and other US financial institutions.

"What this last year tells us is that the cyber threats of today demand that we stay nimble and creative to counter the threats of tomorrow," Monaco said.


Even as she announced new developments with enforcement teams, Monaco said the Justice Department was shifting its approach to cybercrime to focus more on preventing harm to victims and disrupting threats — "even if they might otherwise tip the cybercriminals off and jeopardize the potential for charges and arrest.

Monaco said the Justice Department needed to apply to cybercrime the "same thinking" it brings to thwarting terrorist attacks.

"In other words, before we bring charges, we will assess whether there are steps we can take to prevent or reduce the risk to victims," she said.

Monaco's remarks came on the heels of what the Justice Department hailed as its largest-ever financial seizure. The seizure coincided with the arrests of a married couple in New York who were indicted on charges of conspiring to launder the stolen cryptocurrency.

A federal judge on Monday ordered that Ilya Lichtenstein, a US-Russian dual national, remain behind bars as he awaits trial. His wife, Heather Morgan, was released to home confinement on a $3 million bond.


During the hearing, Judge Beryl Howell rejected arguments that the Justice Department had brought a weak case against the couple. Howell noted that investigators had discovered the private keys to the stolen bitcoin in a cloud storage account belonging to Lichtenstein.

It was, she said, the "electronic version of the smoking gun in his hand."