Federal authorities hauled in 29,655 units of the digital currency — worth $27 million at current exchange rates — through an official
forfeiture by Bitcoin this week.
The bitcoins had belonged to Silk Road, an anonymous online black
market that authorities say was a conduit for purchases of drugs and
computer hacking services — even a place where assassins may have
advertised. It was shuttered after an FBI raid in September, when
agents took control of its server and arrested the man they say was
its founder in San Francisco.
No one stepped forward to claim these bitcoins, which were found in
electronic "wallets" used to store the digital currency. An
additional 144,336 bitcoins, worth more than $128 million today,
were also discovered, but the government's claim on them is being
disputed by Ross William Ulbricht, 29, who U.S. authorities say was
the founder and main operator of Silk Road. They had been stashed on
It all puts authorities in an unusual position, given their concerns
about the way in which bitcoins and other digital currencies are
used by criminals to circumvent regulations intended to prevent
money laundering. By trading in bitcoins, the government could give
the currency some legitimacy.
Bitcoin is essentially software code that defines units of value,
which users can move back and forth among themselves. Unlike other
virtual money transmitters, its value isn't pegged to a hard
currency like the dollar or the euro; it is determined by the demand
The U.S. Marshals Service, which is in charge of liquidating such
seized assets, will have to decide whether to sell the units on a
Bitcoin exchange or find a private buyer, perhaps through an
A spokeswoman for Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for New York's
Southern District, said Friday that the government is still trying
to decide what to do with the forfeited bitcoins.
The timing of any sale could make a big difference in the amount the
government could realize.
Bitcoin's value has fluctuated wildly over the past six months. When
Silk Road was seized, the bitcoins found on the server were worth
$3.6 million, far below their current $27 million value. Friday's
exchange rate was about $900 per bitcoin, according to the
Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange MtGox.
It is unclear whether a large sale of bitcoins by the government
could drive down the price. Friday's volume on MtGox, which is the
largest Bitcoin exchange, was 8,656 units.
"If it's worth $27 million now, is that a high part of the market? A
low part of the market? That's one of the decisions they're going to
have to make," said Louis Rulli, a professor at the University of
Pennsylvania Law School.
"It would seem to me that they would probably convert those bitcoins
into cash relatively quickly."
Barry Silbert, the founder of one of the first investment funds that
lets retail investors gain exposure to Bitcoin, declined to offer an
opinion on what the government should do with its stash or how a
sale would affect the market.
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Marco Santori, a lobbyist for the Bitcoin Foundation, which is
Bitcoin's official trade group, said the group did not have an
official position on the matter.
"THIS WON'T BE DIFFICULT"
Most goods seized by U.S. authorities end up in the hands of the
U.S. Marshals, where they are auctioned or, at times, repurposed for
government use. But the Marshals aren't just practiced at unloading
forfeited SUVs or houses; they also deal with complex financial
instruments, foreign companies and other kinds of obscure assets
forfeited by criminals.
"While Bitcoin is a somewhat new form of asset, it's not unusual for
them to have to find out how to liquidate a new asset," said Jeffrey
Alberts, a partner at Pryor Cashman and a former federal prosecutor
in Manhattan. "This won't be difficult for them, whether they do it
through an exchange or find a buyer who wants to buy it directly
Ulbricht was arrested October 1 in a San Francisco public library
and charged by prosecutors in New York with one count each of money
laundering, computer hacking and drug trafficking. He is being held
at a federal detention center in New York without bail. He has not
entered a formal plea but has maintained his innocence through
statements by his lawyer.
Prosecutors last week asked a judge to grant them a default judgment
in the civil forfeiture case they filed after the raid on Silk Road
and Ulbricht's arrest claiming Silk Road's assets. U.S. District
Judge J. Paul Oetken signed an order to that effect on Wednesday,
giving the government control of the 29,655 Bitcoins from Silk
Road's server but not of the bitcoins — the larger sum — discovered
on Ulbricht's computer. Those are still in dispute.
The proceeds from any sale would be turned over to an asset
forfeiture fund from which the U.S. Justice Department can draw for
law enforcement activities. If any money were to come back to
prosecutors' budgets, it would be distributed evenly among U.S.
attorneys' offices, a policy meant to prevent individual offices
from unduly seizing assets to pad their budgets.
(Reporting by Emily Flitter; editing by
Martin Howell and Douglas Royalty)
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