By Lubomir Tassev
Missing, stolen, lost or buried…these are all adjectives attracting attention when attached to the noun “cash”, physical or digital. Comments and shares on social media have revived curiosity and sparked questions about one particular monetary mystery – what happened with the 200,000 bitcoins Bulgaria seized from gangsters? As with any urban legend, a mix of facts, claims and conspiracy theories drives imaginations wild.
In The Beginning Was the Word
The Southeast European Law Enforcement Center (SELEC) published a press release titled “More than 200,000 Bitcoins in Value of 500 Million USD Seized by Bulgarian Authorities”, back in May last year. Supported by SELEC, Bulgarians had successfully conducted a joint investigation in the field of cybercrime. The operation, codenamed “PRATKA/VIRUS” (Shipment/Virus), had targeted a criminal attempt to evade taxes and duties by hacking government computers.
A criminal group consisting of Bulgarian nationals with ties in Macedonia, Greece, Romania and Serbia (all members of SELEC), was implicated in recruiting corrupted customs officers in all of the involved countries. Their intentions – to infect computerized customs systems with malicious software. Once installed, the virus would allow the tech-savvy gangsters to remotely mark as “checked” various imports, as if the cargo had already passed inspection.
More than 100 addresses, vehicles and persons were searched. Bulgarian police seized a large amount of fiat currency and numerous bank documents. Computers, tablets, and communication devices were confiscated. 23 suspects were arrested, five of them customs officers on active duty. Eight of them were kept in “permanent detention” at the time of the announcement. Damages and losses were estimated at 10 million BGN alone for the year 2015 (more than 5 million EUR).
Here is the essence of the case: “Found in the virtual space” were “Bitcoin wallets of the main suspects with a total value of 213,519 bitcoins”, the press release, dated May 19 2017, read. According to SELEC, “the offenders choose the Bitcoin way of investing and saving money, because it was rather difficult to track and follow”.The Mystery of the Bulgarian Bitcoins Sparks Questions Again
Then Came the Temptation…
SELEC’s announcement of the seized bitcoins provoked imaginations and produced clickable titles in mainstream and alternative media, home and abroad. And they sounded in line with modern trends in (fake) news coverage. Let’s mention some of them:
“Bulgaria Has Enough Bitcoins To Pay Off a Fifth Of Its Debt”. The “poorest EU member-state” had suddenly become a rich country and surging Bitcoin was to blame. It was quickly estimated that the confiscated crypto was worth between $3.3 and 3.6 billion (€3 billion, give or take) when Bitcoin was on its way to $17,000. That would’ve been a great news – Bulgaria’s gross government debt had reached almost €14 billion by the end of 2016, according to Eurostat. True, 29% of GDP is something to envy in Europe, but a fifth less would’ve been a treat.
“Bulgaria is sabotaging international law and order”, runs comments and shares on social media sparked by an article published by the local partner of WikiLeaks – Bivol.bg. The piece, dated December 9, claims that “Bulgarian Interior Ministry and Prosecutor’s Office Undermine “Balkan Europol” in the Seized Bitcoins Case”. The website points to the inconsistency between what SELEC announced from May and the subsequent statements of Bulgarian officials.
Under the Access to Public Information Act, Bivol had also asked the Interior Ministry how it was managing the 213,519 bitcoins captured during the SHIPMENT/VIRUS operation. It called for publishing the respective Bitcoin addresses to prevent abuse, noting that those cryptos could be easily appropriated. When officials refused to declassify any information from the ongoing investigation, the website concluded that Bulgarian police had rushed to inform its foreign partners about the seizure prematurely. If the private keys are missing, the wallets are inaccessible, Bivol noted.
The Mystery of the Bulgarian Bitcoins Sparks Questions AgainDespite SELEC mentioning an exact figure, it is really debatable whether Bulgarian authorities have access to the wallets and the “seized” coins, to say the least. There has been no firm evidence or any official confirmation from Sofia to support that claim. On the contrary, in December, when interest towards the “Bulgarian” bitcoins spiked, two leading law enforcement officials in the country rejected media speculations about the reported loot.
“No Bitcoins have been confiscated”, the head of Bulgaria’s Specialized Prosecution Office Ivan Geshev announced at a press conference, attributing the false claim to SELEC. His comments, quoted by local media and by news.Bitcoin.com, were confirmed by the chief of Bulgaria’s organized crime combating agency GDBOP Ivailo Spiridonov.
Geshev also said that trading bitcoin was not a crime, a view confirmed by an Interior Ministry official. He told reporters they could buy rigs and start mining but warned them – equipment is expensive and consumes electricity:
I don’t investigate hobbies… If money laundering is proved, then we’ll investigate
Another title: “Bulgaria Could Cause a Global Collapse of Bitcoin” … Right! And on that bombshell it’s time look on the bright side of life:
Commas or Decimals, Yes or No?
In this myriad of conspiracy theories – one more, albeit an unlikely one, won’t tip the scales towards any conclusion, it won’t hurt. English is not the native language of the Balkans. And sometimes things are added, missed or hopelessly lost in translation, as you can tell by the language of the hastily translated SELEC press release.
The Balkans have their peculiarities that outsiders find difficult to understand. And in Bulgaria we have gone a step further – shaking heads here means “yes” and nodding – “no” (check the Bulgarian EU presidency promo for disclaimer). Saying that, our habit of using commas in numbers, where decimals are usually placed in English, shouldn’t sound like a huge surprise… Just wondering, could the 200,000 Bitcoins actually be…only 200.000?by