UN implicates crypto in booming illicit economies of Southeast Asia

A report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warned that cryptocurrency is being misused in illicit economies developing in East and Southeast Asia. Crypto is being combined with the latest tech innovations as organized crime creates new, complex challenges for law enforcement, according to the report. 

Poorly regulated or illicit casinos and “pig-butchering” romance scams have seen rapid growth in the Mekong Region, the report stated. These new economic models are highly sophisticated:

“Recent advances in large language model-based chatbots, deepfake technology, and automation, have given rise to more sophisticated and damaging cyber fraud schemes, posing a major threat to individuals and the formal banking industry.”

Another technique used by criminals is locating illegal gambling and scam operations in underregulated special economic zones and areas under the control of autonomous armed groups. A specialized travel industry has arisen around the casinos. So-called junket operators do more than just provide travel and accommodations:

“Junket operators have been able to serve as international bank-like entities, providing a variety of underground financial services including credit issuance, currency exchange and multi-currency payment and settlement solutions, remittances, and extra-legal debt collection mechanisms which have been exploited by organized crime.”

The report said the use of Tether (USDT) stablecoin on the Tron blockchain is the most popular among the region’s financial bad actors due to its stability, ease of use, anonymity and low fees.

Related: Bitrace report zeroes in on stablecoin money laundering methods

Locations of casinos in lower Mekong countries in 2022. Source: UNODC

Local crypto exchanges may play a role in money laundering too through “massive gaps in crime attribution on the blockchain, fabricated reporting by crypto exchanges, and the prevalence of wash trading which inflates crypto transaction volumes, thereby shrinking the portion of illicit transactions identified.”

The report had a lengthy list of suggestions for improving awareness and policies to fight the region’s financial lawlessness.

A nonprofit group made similar allegations about Circle’s USD Coin (USDC) used on Tron. An investigation by Reuters also linked Tron to illicit financing in the Middle East as well. China cracked down on the use of USDT in foreign exchange in December. Tether, the largest stablecoin by market cap at almost $95 billion, has been proactive in its efforts to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement.

Stablecoins have proven to be useful in a growing number of cases connected with foreign exchange and decentralized finance. Their use is growing rapidly as more government provide regulation of them. 

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