North Korea’s ‘Hacker Army’ Stole $3 Billion Worth Of Crypto Assets

Crypto can be stolen just like all the other forms of currency despite the security features that it has been equipped with. In most cases, criminals steal lots of cryptos that leave investors in some cases destroyed.

It was recently discovered that an army of trained cybercriminals working strictly for the North Korean government stole nearly $3 billion in crypto in different online schemes. Sadly, all this money was then utilized in the Asian nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The hacking incident is an outcome of five years of coordinated efforts, aimed at deceiving cryptocurrency holders and fraudulently acquiring their funds. Contrary to the perception of a sophisticated “hacker army” engaging in cutting-edge heists, a significant portion of the stolen money was obtained through straightforward scams.

These scams involved tactics such as assuming the identity of a job recruiter and tricking victims into unknowingly installing a Trojan horse program, cleverly disguised as a fake document, onto their computers.

In one specific case, the victim was an engineer at a blockchain gaming firm by the name of Sky Mavis, and the software provided the hackers with access to the firm’s mainframes, letting them steal a staggering $600 million mainly from the gamers of a virtual pets’ game known as ‘Axie Infinity.’

According to officials in the US government, the recent heist represents the largest haul in the past five years of cybercriminal activities orchestrated by North Korea. These operations have resulted in a staggering total of $3 billion being acquired by the North Korean government. This substantial sum of money is sufficient to finance approximately half of the country’s ballistic missile program, as per the same US officials.

North Korea's hackers

That is a major reason the Sky Mavis theft caught the undivided attention of the White House. Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology for the Joe Biden administration, said:

“The real surge in the last year has been against central crypto infrastructure around the world that hold large sums, like Sky Mavis, leading to more large-scale heists…That has driven us to intensely focus on countering this activity.”

The task is quite challenging, as the North Korean hackers have achieved approximately 42 documented successes since their operations commenced in 2018. Despite the enigmatic nature of much of the country’s internal affairs, US officials have recorded a rise in missile testing during the same timeframe.

An ex-FBI analyst called Nick Carlsen also goes as far as to refer to North Korea as “a modern-day pirate state,” unique from other nations’ hacking operations in its major focus on financial assets instead of secret information. A 2020 UN report refers to these operations by hackers as “low-risk, high-reward and difficult to detect, and their increasing sophistication can frustrate attribution.”

North Korea’s association with numerous notable cybercrimes extends well beyond 2018, with the infamous 2014 Sony hack being a prominent example. However, according to US officials, the country has managed to intensify its operations in recent years, showcasing increased sophistication and efficacy. The simultaneous emergence of cryptocurrency has also played a beneficial role in this context.

Hence, it is now up to the crypto firms and the US government to try and set up new security measures for the heists, some of which are so complex that officials insist that their strategies are not seen from any other section of the hacking world.

In the past year, authorities have claimed that North Korean hackers orchestrated a “cascading supply-chain attack” targeting two software companies, Trading Technologies, and 3CX. Exploiting the infrastructure of the latter, they managed to siphon an undisclosed but reportedly a limited number of individual cryptocurrency accounts from exchanges utilizing 3CX software.

Here is what Sky Mavis COO Aleksander Larsen said in the wake of the attack that nearly destroyed his company:

“It’s an arms race with these hackers.”

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