Digital currency founder arrested on money-laundering charges

Liberty Reserve's Arthur Budovsky was apprehended in Costa Rica

Topics: Associated Press, Liberty Reserve, Costa rica, Arthur Budovsky, Russia, ,

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — The founder of the Liberty Reserve digital currency business has been arrested in Spain on money-laundering charges, Costa Rican authorities said.

Officials in the Central American nation said in a statement that Arthur Budovsky was detained as part of an investigation that also involved U.S. authorities.

Police raided three homes and five businesses linked to the Costa Rica-based Liberty Reserve and seized papers and digital documents that will be turned over to U.S. authorities, the statement said. A Russian citizen was also arrested in the case in Costa Rica on Friday and will be extradited to the U.S., it said.

Budovsky, a naturalized Costa Rican citizen, was detained Friday. He had renounced his U.S. citizenship and become a resident and citizen of Costa Rica, Costa Rican authorities said.

Liberty Reserve is a company that allows users to apply for an account through the Internet by simply supplying a valid email address. Once a person signs up for an account, Liberty Reserve gives them a user name and an account number and they can start transferring money around the world, Costa Rican officials said.

They said the company shut its offices in Costa Rica in 2011. The website, however, had continued to operate, although it was offline Monday.

According to Costa Rica police, Budovsky was sentenced in 2007 to five years’ probation after pleading guilty in a New York court to charges he operated an illegal financial services business similar to Liberty Reserve.

U.S. authorities didn’t return phone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment Monday, which was the Memorial Day holiday in the United States.

Liberty Reserve’s origins are obscure, but it had grown into one of the criminal underworld’s best known electronic currency systems, used by hackers the world over to discreetly move large sums of money across borders, experts say.

Liberty Reserve, which conducted its transactions in dollars, euros and rubles, operates as an anonymous, no-questions-asked alternative to the global banking system, said Aditya Sood, a computer science doctoral candidate at Michigan State University who has studied the electronic currency.

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“You don’t need to provide your full details, or personal information, or things like that,” he said in a telephone interview. “There’s no way to trace an account. That’s the beauty of the system.”

Offshore currency centers, generally set up in places beyond the reach of U.S. or European law enforcement, can serve as middlemen between criminals and the mainstream financial world, brokering transactions that turn illegally obtained money into seemingly legitimate cash.

Sood said that despite prominent disclaimers warning against money laundering, the currency centers typically have little in the way of serious oversight.

“They don’t care,” he said. “They have no idea where the money is coming from or where the money is going. That’s how they designed the model.”

Liberty Reserve appears to have played an important role in laundering the proceeds from the recent theft of some $45 million from two Middle Eastern banks, according to legal documents made public by U.S. authorities earlier this month.

The complaint against one of the Dominican Republic gang members allegedly involved in the theft states that thousands of dollars’ worth of stolen cash was deposited into two Liberty Reserve accounts via currency centers based in Siberia and Singapore.

The loss of Liberty Reserve has the potential to cause a “major upheaval” in the cybercrime economy, said investigative journalist-turned-security researcher Brian Krebbs, who added in a blog post that hackers writing in underground forums were already buzzing with concern over frozen funds.

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