Police need powers to tackle virtual money laundering: Europol

One of Bitcoin enthusiast Mike Caldwell's coins in this photo illustration at his office in Sandy, Utah, September 17, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The head of the European Union’s policing agency warned on Monday that virtual currencies such as Bitcoin were being used for money laundering and called for police to be given more powers to identify criminal suspects operating on the Internet.

Financial and law enforcement authorities have previously warned of the security risk posed by virtual currencies, which use encryption systems to reliably process transactions while being difficult for authorities to trace.

“We’re seeing that virtual currencies are being used as an instrument to facilitate crime, particularly in regard to the laundering of illicit profits,” said Europol head Rob Wainwright, speaking on the margins of a nuclear security conference in The Hague.

U.S. authorities last year moved to shut down Silk Road, an underground marketplace which allowed participants to settle their accounts anonymously using Bitcoin. Ross Ulbricht, its alleged founder, also faces money laundering charges. His trial is due to start in November.

Wainwright said police should be given new powers to allow them to identify anonymous participants online and bring them to justice.

Europol has no policing powers of its own, but acts to coordinate policing and cross-border investigations between the 28 member countries of the European Union.

Wainwright said police do not have sufficient capabilities to operate online and identify anonymous groups that are using dark areas of the internet. “Criminals are abusing those freedoms and damaging society and threatening the security of millions,” he said.

Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Geert De Clercq and David Holmes