Bitcoin Ban Expands Across Credit Cards as Big U.S. Banks Recoil

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A growing number of big U.S. credit-card issuers are deciding they don’t want to finance a falling knife.

JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. said they’re halting purchases of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies on their credit cards. JPMorgan, enacting the ban Saturday, doesn’t want the credit risk associated with the transactions, company spokeswoman Mary Jane Rogers said.

Bank of America started declining credit card transactions with known crypto exchanges on Friday. The policy applies to all personal and business credit cards, according to a memo. It doesn’t affect debit cards, said company spokeswoman Betty Riess.

And late Friday, Citigroup said it too will halt purchases of cryptocurrencies on its credit cards. “We will continue to review our policy as this market evolves,” company spokeswoman Jennifer Bombardier said.

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Allowing purchases of cryptocurrencies can create big headaches for lenders, which can be left on the hook if a borrower bets wrong and can’t repay. There’s also the risk that thieves will abuse cards that were purloined or based on stolen identities, turning them into crypto hoards. Banks also are required by regulators to monitor customer transactions for signs of money laundering — which isn’t as easy once dollars are converted into digital coins.

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Bitcoin has lost more than half its value since Dec. 18, falling below $8,000 on Friday for the first time since November. The drop occurred amid escalating regulatory threats around the world, fear of price manipulation and Facebook Inc.’s ban on ads for cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings.

Now, cutting off card purchases could exacerbate those pressures by making it more difficult for enthusiasts to buy into the market. Capital One Financial Corp. and Discover Financial Services previously said they aren’t supporting the transactions.

Mastercard Inc. said this week that cross-border volumes on its network — a measure of customer spending abroad — have risen 22 percent this year, fueled partly by clients using their cards to buy digital currencies. The firm warned that the trend already was beginning to slow as cryptocurrency prices fell.

Discover Chief Executive Officer David Nelms was dismissive of financing cryptocurrency transactions during an interview last month, noting that could change depending on customer demand. For now, “it’s crooks that are trying to get money out of China or wherever,” he said of those trying to use the currencies.

    Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-02/bofa-to-decline-all-cryptocurrency-transactions-on-credit-cards

    The Criminal Underworld Is Dropping Bitcoin for Another Currency

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    Bitcoin is losing its luster with some of its earliest and most avid fans — criminals — giving rise to a new breed of virtual currency.

    Privacy coins such as monero, designed to avoid tracking, have climbed faster over the past two months as law enforcers adopt software tools to monitor people using bitcoin. A slew of analytic firms such as Chainalysis are getting better at flagging digital hoards linked to crime or money laundering, alerting exchanges and preventing conversion into traditional cash.

    The European Union’s law-enforcement agency, Europol, raised alarms three months ago, writing in a report that “other cryptocurrencies such as monero, ethereum and Zcash are gaining popularity within the digital underground.” Online extortionists, who use ransomware to lock victims’ computers until they fork over a payment, have begun demanding those currencies instead. On Dec. 18 hackers attacked up to 190,000 WordPress sites per hour to get them to produce monero, according to security company Wordfence.

    For ransomware attacks, monero is now “one of the favorites, if not the favorite,” Matt Suiche, founder of Dubai-based security firm Comae Technologies, said in a phone interview.

    Monero's Rally

    Monero outperformed bitcoin in the final months of 2017

    Source: Coinmarketcap.com

    Note: Figures shows percentage change in price compared with Oct. 31

    Monero quadrupled in value to $349 in the final two months of 2017, according to coinmarketcap.com, placing it among a number of upstart coins that rose faster than bitcoin, the world’s most valuable digital currency. Bitcoin roughly doubled in the same period, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Monero’s price has climbed another 7 percent so far this year, according to coinmarketcap.com.

    Read more: Ripple’s surge makes it the second-biggest cryptocurrency

    In monero’s case, criminals are snapping it up because bitcoin’s underlying technology can work against them. Called blockchain, the digital ledger meticulously records which addresses send and receive transactions, including the exact time and amount — great data to use as evidence. Match an address to a crime and then watch the bitcoin universe carefully, and you can see the funds disappear and reappear in other locations.

    Sleuths have developed databases and techniques for digesting that information to eventually nab wrongdoers. Say, for example, a coffee shop in Berkeley is known to have a certain bitcoin address, and a wallet used by an extortionist transfers the same amount there every morning at 9 a.m. Police can stop by and make an arrest.

    Started in 2014, monero is very different. It encrypts the recipient’s address on its blockchain and generates fake addresses to obscure the real sender. It also obscures the amount of the transaction.

    The techniques are so potent that software that flags coins suspected of being obtained through crime now tags just about anything converted into or out of monero as high risk, according to Pawel Kuskowski, chief executive officer of Coinfirm, which helps exchanges and other companies avoid tainted money. That compares with only about 10 percent of bitcoin, he said.

    “What we treat ‘high risk’ is something that’s anonymizing funds,” he said in a phone interview. “How are you going to prove that these funds are not coming from illegal sources?”

    Read a QuickTake: All about bitcoin, blockchain and their crypto world

    Monero is one of many privacy-focused coins, each offering different security features. Its main competitor, Zcash — which isn’t known to have a significant criminal following — can offer even better privacy protection. Instead of creating fake addresses to hide senders, it encrypts their true address. That makes it impossible to identify senders by looking for correlations in addresses used in multiple transactions to pinpoint the real one — a vulnerability for monero. Developers of the coin have made progress in reducing it, though.

    Still, Princeton University researchers recently developed a tool that helps them analyze Zcash transactions at least to some extent — but they haven’t been able to crack monero. And Zcash high-security features can’t be used on disposable burner phones, a favorite of criminals eager to stay anonymous.

    Developers behind monero say they simply created a coin that protects privacy. Most people use it legitimately — they just don’t want others to know whether they’re buying a coffee or a car, Riccardo Spagni, core developer at monero, said in a phone interview.

    “As a community, we certainly don’t advocate for monero’s use by criminals,” Spagni said. “At the same time if you have a decentralized currency, it’s not like you can prevent someone from using it. I imagine that monero provides massive advantages for criminals over bitcoin, so they would use monero.”

    ‘Utility’ Too

    Yet criminals are probably only a fraction of monero’s users, according to Lucas Nuzzi, a senior analyst at Digital Asset Research, which provides research to institutional investors.

    “As with any disruptive technology, many of the initial use cases revolve around illicit activities,” he wrote in an email. But as everyday people grow concerned about privacy and surveillance, “there is utility in these currencies that go beyond just a means of exchange for illicit goods.”

    For related news and information:
    Bitcoin price graph: XBT Curncy GP
    Cryptocurrency monitor: VCCY

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      Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-02/criminal-underworld-is-dropping-bitcoin-for-another-currency