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US punishes Blender.io for helping North Korea launder millions of stolen Axie crypto

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The US Treasury Department announced on Friday that it was sanctioning Blender.io, essentially cutting off the Bitcoin blender from the US financial system (legally speaking, anyway). The department alleges that the service, which allows people to obfuscate the record usually kept by the blockchain, has been used by North Korea to support its malicious cyber activities and money laundering of stolen virtual currency.

According to the Treasury press release, Blender.io was used by hacking group Lazarus to launder $20.5 million of cryptocurrency it allegedly stole from crypto-based game Axie Infinity. Total proceeds from the hack, which Treasury linked to Lazarus and North Korea in April, were estimated to be around $625 million at the time, although a few million dollars in funds were recovered. The Treasury claims that Lazarus is sponsored by the North Korean government and that the country uses hackers to generate revenue for its illegal weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programs.

The Treasury press release says this is the first time it has imposed sanctions on a virtual currency mixer. (It has, however, applied other crypto-related sanctions; notably, last year it issued its first sanction against an exchange.) Blender.io was not the only tool used by hackers, but to start , funds stolen from the Axie Infinitys Ronin network were originally in Ethereum and USDC, and Blender runs on Bitcoin; at some point there must have been a conversion. There are also reports that the hackers filtered some of the funds through Tornado Cash, a service meant to make it harder to track transactions.

The US Treasury also alleges that Blender laundered money for ransomware organizations like Conti, Trickbot, and Sodinokibi (aka REvil). Now that he is sanctioned, he will no longer be able to access any of his funds stored in the United States, or transact with American companies or citizens.

The Treasury description of how Blender.io works. Image: US Treasury Department

Blender and other blenders work by pooling deposited funds and then distributing them randomly. Since transactions are recorded on the blockchain, it can be very difficult to redeem stolen funds without using these types of services. Stolen coins go into the blender, and hackers will, in theory, recover clean coins. (And anyone who finds themselves with the stolen coins can point to the mixer and say Well, you can see I didn’t get them out of the wallet myself.)

As happened with the Axie hack, governments can sanction wallets affiliated with hacking groups, and researchers can track the movements of stolen cryptos. If criminals want to convert their ill-gotten crypto into, say, Lamborghinis, they need to make sure they are not traced.

Of course, as the Treasury points out, there are perfectly legal uses for this type of service, people could use them to gain some semblance of privacy when shopping with crypto, for example. But with the department monitoring crypto crimes so closely, it’s starting to feel like companies will have to be very careful about the money they take and tumble.

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2/ https://www.theverge.com/2022/5/6/23060544/us-treasury-blender-io-sanctions-bitcoin-mixer

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