Where do you go to find the world’s top crypto investigators?
After an ambitious hiring spree, Binance may be able to claim the title. The crypto exchange is now home to two former IRS agents—Matthew Price and Tigran Gambaryan–with years of experience chasing multi-billion crypto criminals, both on-chain and off-chain.
As part of our first-of-its-kind Law Enforcement Training Program, the #Binance security and compliance team hosted training workshops in Abu Dhabi, Georgia and Portugal.
The program is designed to increase collaboration with authorities on fighting cyber crimes 🤝 pic.twitter.com/NgbuU3q1a1
— Binance (@binance) October 30, 2022
“When I saw crypto and the fact that you have this permanent blockchain record of all the transactions, that kind of really piqued my interest,” Price, head of intelligence and investigations for the Americas at Binance, told Decrypt. “A lot of the work I did in the intelligence community was using large sources of data and combing through those to find leads or sources—and I saw blockchain as the same opportunity.”
Tracking crypto criminals
Price is a former IRS agent who also spent a stint as a targeting officer with the CIA. At Binance, he is joined by longtime IRS special agent Tigran Gambaryan, now global head of intelligence and investigations at the crypto exchange.
For those unfamiliar with the technology, crypto may seem like the perfect tool for financial crime—that’s the reputation crypto often gets in the mainstream media. Price and Gambaryan couldn’t disagree more. And they have plenty of stories to point to.
As an agent at IRS Criminal Investigation, Price led investigations on Helix, a Bitcoin tumbler associated with illicit dark web trades. Helix processed over $310 million in crypto until it went bust.
“We reached out to Reddit, we reached out to some forums trying to figure out who was behind the account, and it really led nowhere. Then we really focused on the actual transactions, and the service was charging a fee,” Price explained.
Then they noticed a series of small transactions that to them looked like the administrator charging his fee for every transaction he conducted.
“So by following that thread, we were able to get links to an identity,” Price said. This convicted criminal’s name was Larry Harmon of Akron, Ohio. And he was an early adopter of Google Glass, Pierce explained. What led to the discovery of his identity was a publicly-shared Google Glass photo of a computer screen showing the Helix administrator page. (Harmon pleaded guilty and forfeited more than 4,400 Bitcoin.)
Such seemingly-trivial mistakes are curiously common for highly paranoid and tech-savvy criminals, Price explained.
Gambaryan has similar stories to tell.
He began his crypto journey as early as 2011 while working in the Oakland and San Francisco office of the IRS. He’s one of the main names behind some of the most high-profile crypto investigations ever conducted. His investigations include the 2014 Mt. Gox hack, in which users lost $350 million. He also led an investigation on the BTC-e exchange, the founder of which was accused of laundering 300,000 Bitcoin between 2011-2017.
Perhaps most famously, Gambaryan led the first investigation where crypto was traced back to the real identity of criminals in what is now known as the Silk Road corruption investigations. The crypto criminals in that case were two federal agents who were assigned to work the Silk Road case, the now-defunct dark web marketplace where Bitcoin was used for illicit trades. Gambaryan compiled a comprehensive Criminal Complaint, detailing the actions of the two federal agents, which led to their conviction.
Crypto vs traditional finance
Despite a lifetime spent pursuing crypto crimes, Gambaryan retains a level-headed view of crypto. “Cryptocurrency is just like any other financial tool that can be used for legal or illegal purposes,” he said.
One big difference between crypto and traditional finance is the many hurdles the latter throws up in investigators’ path.
“Money launderers understood that when you set up offshore entities, and you set up offshore bank accounts, that slows down law enforcement. As an investigator, you're now required to go through processes for months to get bank records for different financial institutions around the world,” Gambaryan said. “And by the time you actually get to the target, the target is gone.”
“But what cryptocurrency allows us to do is skip that whole thing,” he said.
Price explained that “a lot of the investigation techniques are the same,” since it’s mostly data analysis. “But it's also knowing how to operationalize that data,” he said. And getting the support of crypto exchanges when working on an investigation is key, he explained. As former IRS agents, they found crypto exchanges—not just Binance—a complete fresh breeze, miles away from begrudging banks.
In their new roles at Binance, things hardly feel any different from their times at the IRS. They still work on crime investigations, as they normally would. And this time, they’re able to help colleagues at the IRS.
We unveiled Binance’s Global Law Enforcement Training Program.
The industry’s first global coordinated effort of this kind, designed to help law enforcement detect financial and cyber crimes and assist in the prosecution of bad actors.https://t.co/ph71mmHV2W
— Binance (@binance) November 9, 2022
Between November 2021 and September 2022, the Binance Investigations team responded to more than 27,000 law enforcement requests with an average of three days response time.
“This is bleeding edge stuff. It's constantly changing. It's constantly evolving, but I can speak directly to the people involved in it. And then I can use that information to help law enforcement identify and go after the guys they're seeking to exploit it,” Pierce said.
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