In an unprecedented move, authorities in Florida are targeting bitcoin traders simply for purchasing the currency.
Unlike previous prosecutions in which Bitcoin users were suspected of participating in other illegal activities, the Miami Beach Police Department is claiming that purchasing the currency is itself a crime punishable under state anti-money-laundering laws.
One of the men targeted is a user of localbitcoins.com named “Michelhack.” The site facilitates in-person meetings between Bitcoin owners and prospective buyers, and “Michelhack” had a 99 percent approval rating, so undercover agents from the United States Secret Service’s Electronic Crimes Task Force set up a meeting with him at which they exchanged a bitcoin for $1,000.
With that trust established, the undercover agent then arranged to purchase $30,000 more in bitcoins from “Michelhack” and, according to court documents, told him that they were to be used to purchase stolen credit cards.
Although “Michelhack” — who investigators identified as Miami Beach resident Michell Abner Espinoza — wasn’t involved in the credit card scheme, he was arrested yesterday on charges of making an unlicensed money transmission of between $300 and $20,000, and on money laundering charges for trading in currency valued at more than $10,000.
Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley who studies bitcoins, told Brian Krebs that this prosecution is significant because it goes after Bitcoin users who merely wish to purchase the currency anonymously. Weaver notes that there is no underlying crime here — Florida authorities are going after localbitcoins.com solely because it allows users to anonymously purchase bitcoins.
“I’d expect many more state cases like this one because it will act to strangle the lifeblood of the online dark markets” like the Silk Road, Weaver said.
“If you want a significant amount of anonymous bitcoins, right now this community is about the only mechanism still available.”
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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