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Since mixer crackdowns, criminals have become more dependent on cross-chain bridges.

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The landscape of cryptocurrency underwent a seismic shift in August, triggered by the sanctions imposed on Tornado Cash, a cryptocurrency mixer. This transformation has been unfolding at an even swifter pace than originally anticipated.

Over the past year, cybercriminals have displayed a noticeable inclination toward transitioning from cryptocurrency mixers to cross-chain bridges. This shift in preference has been meticulously observed by Elliptic, a blockchain forensics firm.

The months of June and July witnessed a remarkable trend where a substantial portion of stolen cryptocurrencies underwent the process of laundering through cross-chain bridges. This represents a stark departure from the patterns observed in the first half of 2022, as per Elliptic’s comprehensive data analysis.

In a blog post dated September 18, Elliptic shed light on this burgeoning trend of cross-chain criminal activities. This shift is attributed to the phenomenon known as “crime displacement,” wherein malefactors pivot to new methods of carrying out illicit activities when their existing avenues face heightened scrutiny. However, the transition to cross-chain bridges is happening at an even faster rate than Elliptic’s initial forecasts.

During the period spanning July to September 2022, there was a dramatic inversion in the ratio of laundered funds passing through mixers compared to those processed through cross-chain bridges. This shift coincided with the United States Office of Foreign Asset Control’s decision to sanction Tornado Cash in August 2022, as reported by Elliptic.

Elliptic has reported that numerous cybercriminal groups, such as the North Korean-backed Lazarus Group, have gravitated towards the Avalanche bridge in response to these sanctions. Interestingly, this very bridge was recently employed by the Lazarus Group to facilitate the movement of stolen funds in the $41 million exploit targeting Stake, as corroborated by blockchain security firm CertiK.

Crypto mixers experienced a brief resurgence between November 2022 and January 2023. This resurgence can be attributed to the closure of RenBridge in December, following the financial collapse of its backer, Alameda Research, amid FTX’s bankruptcy.

However, it didn’t take long for criminals to revert to their preference for cross-chain bridges, and this time, their utilization surpassed previous levels. Elliptic postulates that criminals may favor cross-chain bridges because traditional blockchain forensic solutions struggle to track illicit activities across multiple chains in a scalable manner.

Elliptic emphasizes that criminals are acutely aware that legacy blockchain analytics tools lack the capabilities to trace illicit blockchain activities programmatically and at scale. Furthermore, many of the stolen tokens are only exchangeable through cross-chain bridges, with a significant number of decentralized finance services not mandating identity verification, according to Elliptic’s insights.

The firm’s estimations point to an astonishing $4 billion in illicit or high-risk cryptocurrencies having been laundered through cross-chain bridges since the year 2020.

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