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Australia police form digital asset unit amid rising ‘crypto’ money laundering cases

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has set up a new unit dedicated to cracking down on digital asset-related crime.

The AFP has been cracking down on digital asset money laundering and other related crimes for years now. However, these activities have not been coordinated by one unit, which would make them more efficient, AFP’s criminal asset confiscation command Stefan Jerga told the Australian Financial Review.

“The environment was such that we felt a standalone team [was required], rather than a lot of officers picking up some of this skill set as part of their overall role. So we’ve now got a dedicated team that continues to grow,” Jerga said.

The new unit is in line with similar global developments as more regulators focus on the rapidly-growing industry. In the U.K., the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) recently tapped a former police officer to head its new digital assets unit starting in October. Earlier this year, the FBI launched the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team, headed by longtime prosecutor Eun Young Choi. The SEC also revamped and renamed its Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit, doubling the headcount.

Australia’s new unit will focus on seizing criminal assets, but it will also play a big role in other related probes, Jerga revealed.

“It’s targeting assets, but it’s also providing that valuable, investigative tracing capability and lens for all of our commands across all of our businesses, whether they’re national security-related, child protection, cyber—or the ability to trace cryptocurrency transactions across the relevant blockchains is really, really important,” he said.

The AFP’s criminal asset confiscation department has exceeded expectations, seizing over AUD600 million since February 2020. Only a marginal portion of this has been linked to digital assets, but the AFP is taking no chances.

The launch of the new unit comes just months after the deputy chief executive of Australia’s financial intelligence agency, AUSTRAC, claimed that criminals were exploiting digital assets to launder money. 

John Moss cited Chainalysis figures which found criminal activities to constitute 0.15% of global transaction volumes. This was four times higher than the 0.035% share of transactions on the four largest banks linked to crimes. However, with Australia’s GDP at $1.8 trillion, the banks’ share, though smaller by proportion, is much bigger in actual size.

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