U.S. authorities have seized more than $30 million in cryptocurrency plundered from an online game this year by hackers linked to North Korea, one of the largest successes clawing back digital revenue from Pyongyang, investigators said.
While only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in cryptocurrency purloined, the sum recovered is far higher than previously known. It reflects both the growing capabilities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies and the priority the U.S. is giving to thwarting North Korean hackers, whose heists are used to bolster their country’s nuclear ambitions, analysts said.
Erin Plante, senior director of investigations at the cryptocurrency intelligence firm Chainalysis, which announced the seizure amount Thursday at a conference in Barcelona, said the recovery was among the largest by U.S. law enforcement and had made it more difficult for the North Korean hacking group known as Lazarus Group to access the funds.
“It’s a big deal to have any amount of money clawed back from the Lazarus Group,” Ms. Plante said in an interview. “That didn’t used to happen.”
Sky Mavis Ltd., publisher of the game “Axie Infinity,” said in March that hackers had infiltrated part of its Ronin Network, the blockchain, or digital ledger, on which the game runs. The infiltrators gained access to accounts holding cryptocurrencies and drained 173,600 ether and 25.5 million of the stablecoin USDC. The assets were worth about $540 million on the date of the theft.
Sky Mavis said then it was working with Chainalysis, which often supports U.S. law enforcement investigations, to track the stolen funds. The firm said it traced the stolen funds to points where the thieves attempted to convert it to fiat currency, and there law enforcement and partners in the cryptocurrency industry were able to freeze the money.
The recovered cryptocurrency includes about $5.8 million seized by Binance, a major cryptocurrency exchange, in April, as well as several other seizures at different exchanges, Chainalysis said. The firm didn’t identify the other exchanges, but said the FBI was involved in all of the cases.