Image: Cointelegraph

North Korea-based cybercriminals are suspected of using untraceable alternative cryptocurrencies, or altcoins, to convert stolen funds into cash.

An unpublished United Nations Panel of Experts report states that North Korea-backed hackers have stolen approximately $1.5 billion in cryptocurrencies, a portion of which they have converted to cash, NK News reports via Cointelegraph.

The hackers deliberately transact using privacy-focused altcoins as they are hard to trace and track, moving the stolen assets to loosely regulated cryptocurrency exchanges that have minimal customer identification requirements.

The UN experts reportedly state that the North Korean hackers try to make their funds untraceable using “mixers” – an advanced service that mixes cryptocurrency funds of various users to preserve privacy and make tracking efforts more difficult. 

Senior analyst at cybersecurity firm Mandiant Threat Intelligence, Fred Plan, said, “North Korea-sponsored actors have a critical advantage that most cybercriminals do not have: They are backed by the resources of a nation-state that is understood to already have significant capability to move money in other illegal transactions, such as weapons sales and human trafficking.”

North Korea is suspected of conducting numerous virtual heists and stealing funds worth billions of dollars. One of the most infamous North Korean cybercriminal groups, Lazarus, reportedly stole over $571 million between 2017 and 2018. North Korea-sponsored hacks accounted for more than 65% of stolen cryptocurrencies.

In 2019, another UN report cited by Reuters also estimated that North Korea had stolen almost $2 billion in cash and cryptocurrencies through cyberattacks to fund its nuclear program.