Cryptocurrency now ‘de-facto currency of crime’ as gardaí struggle to deal with their use by street-level drug dealers

A detective garda has outlined how cryptocurrencies are now the “de-facto currency of crime”.

he annual National Prosecutors’ Conference, in the Convention Centre, in Dublin, heard from Detective Garda Alan Carbery from the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) about the force’s experience in seizing Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from criminals.

He said parents should be alert to their teenage children having downloaded Tor browsers to their phones or laptops.

This software, which can be used to mask a person’s IP address and access the Dark Web, could be “a red flag” that a person is ordering drugs online.

He said drug users could avoid going to run down parts of cities or towns to order drugs by using such software to order their drugs on their phone.

Garda Carbery said street-level drug dealers were using Bitcoin ATMs located around the country to process drug money and gardaí were struggling to tackle this new trend.

He highlighted the case of Conor Freeman, a 19-year-old, who in 2020 was jailed for just under three years for his role in a cryptocurrency fraud.

Garda Carbery said this was a “good news story” as Freeman was now studying cybersecurity in UCD and he believed he was rehabilitated.

“He got sucked into something but he has turned his life around and he will be gainfully employed when he graduates,” said Garda Carbery.

The gardaí disposed of Bitcoin worth €5.2m which was seized from Mr Freeman.

They were able to return the money to the victims of the fraud which included one American internet start-up company which was about to close before the gardaí returned some €3m that had been fraudulently taken from it.

Meanwhile the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has said Irish people are fortunate to live in a society where the public can “rightly trust that prosecution decisions are made entirely free from any attempt at political interference”.

Catherine Pierse, who was appointed to the role in 2021, was speaking at  the conference today where some 300 judges, lawyers, gardaí and prosecutors gathered.

Pierse came in for some online criticism this summer after it was announced that the DPP had decided not to prosecute Leo Varadkar, the Tanaiste, over his leaking of a draft contract with the Irish Medical Organisation to a rival doctors’ group.

Paddy Cosgrave, the Web Summit chief executive, who help break the story with the Village magazine’s Michael Smith in 2019, tweeted in July that the matter was not over and intimated that Pierse’s decision could be subject to Judicial Review.

In her opening address, Pierse said: “Independence is not an abstract concept but a real value that prosecutors must hold true – remaining vigilant against the influence of external commentary or unconscious bias.

“As prosecutors, we must focus on the evidence and the law.”

Ms Pierse said communication was a key part of the DPP’s role as prosecutors.

“To communicate effectively we must set clear expectations about our role,” she said.

“We do not represent victims but we have an important role to fulfil in providing information to them, and in supporting the vindication of their rights under the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017.

“We know that many victims find a decision not to prosecute distressing and some victims feel rejected and disbelieved.

“It is important for us to communicate that a decision not to prosecute does not mean that a victim is not believed. In the vast majority of cases it is that we have assessed that the evidence is not sufficient and there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction.”

She said the DPP’s Victims Liaison Unit has been working with victims’ support groups to improve how it communicates decisions not to prosecute.

“These letters to victims must balance our obligation to provide information in a manner that does not re-traumatise the individual, while protecting the privacy rights of third parties, and preserving the suspect’s presumption of innocence.”

Ms Pierse said she was very conscious that there were backlogs in the system due to the pandemic and she realised the delays in bringing cases to trial had negative impacts on witnesses, victims and accused persons.

She is working with colleagues in the justice system to ensure the system provides more certainty for users.