NEM Theft Suggests Hacking Is More Lucrative than Mining

The NEM Foundation has called off its search for the 523 million NEM tokens that were stolen from the Tokyo-based Coincheck exchange. Although the Foundation lauded the effectiveness of the search, the outcome proves yet again that cryptocurrency hackers are benefiting from the dark web, which provides an effective venue for laundering stolen funds.

Search for Stolen Coins Ends

In a statement published Mar. 19, the NEM Foundation informed its community that it had disabled the tracking mosaic used to monitor the movement of XEM funds tied to the massive heist of Coincheck in January. According to the post, the search ended on Mar. 18.

The statement reads:

“Beginning March 18, the NEM.io Foundation has disabled the tracking mosaic that was put into place to monitor XEM movements from the Coincheck theft. This effort was effective at reducing the hacker’s ability to liquidate stolen XEM and provided law enforcement with actionable information. We don’t plan to release further details due to the sensitive nature of this investigation.”

On. Jan. 26, hackers successfully made off with $530 million worth of XEM tokens, marking the biggest crypto heist on record. The theft propagated a new investigation into existing crypto exchanges by Japan’s Financial Services Authority (FSA). Domestic exchanges also announced plans to form a self-governing body to safeguard against illicit activity.

Hacked reported earlier this month that the Coincheck attackers had already laundered some 40% of the stolen NEM funds, primarily through the dark web. The stolen coins have reportedly made their way into exchanges in Japan, China and Canada.

Crypto Heists: A Growing Phenomenon

While the crypto economy has been highly lucrative for early adopters, cyber criminals have managed to steal huge sums of money. Unlike credit card fraud, the theft of major crypto exchanges has reshaped the digital currency market. This was most evident in 2014, when Mt Gox fell prey to a $480 million attack that eventually led to its demise.

As the Coincheck hack demonstrated, locating stolen funds and identifying perpetrators are extremely difficult. That said, NEM’s efforts to blacklist the tokens probably limited how much money the attackers were able to keep.

This brings us to an important question: is hacking more lucrative than legitimate crypto mining? To answer that question, we’ll begin by providing a rundown of the major crypto heists of the last four years.

Since 2014, hackers have made off with more than $1.3 billion in stolen coins. The biggest losses are as follows:

  • Coincheck: $530 million (2018)
  • Mt Gox: $480 million (2014)
  • Parity Wallet: $155 million (2017)
  • Bitfinex: $65 million (2016)
  • NiceHash: $63 million (2017)
  • DAO: $50 million (2016)
  • Tether: $31 million (2017)

For all of 2017, it is estimated that hackers stole nearly $400 million from ICOs. That’s roughly 10% of the total amount raised for the year.

Mining Profitability

Cryptocurrency mining has spearheaded a multi-billion-dollar industry. The recent crackdown on mining rigs in China means there is a large void in the market that several jurisdictions, including Canada and India, are rushing to fill. During the height of bitcoin’s surge, crypto miners earned roughly $240,000 every ten minutes. Miners now earn roughly half that, based on current price levels.

Of course, this doesn’t factor the cost of electricity, power consumption, hardware, manpower and other fees needed to operate a mining operation. These variables, combined with the unknown trajectory of crypto prices, make profitability a lot harder to gauge.

The yearly decline in profitability is also a critical, albeit elusive variable in pricing the success of a mining operation. This variable is tied to the number of miners that join the network – a figure that is extremely difficult to predict. Against this backdrop, 99bitcoins.com has developed a bitcoin mining calculator that provides simple guidance on whether a certain mining operation is profitable.

Other digital currencies provide a potentially more lucrative opportunity to join the mining business. For example, Monero can still be mined with a basic desktop computer. With an average block time of two minutes, users can mine the coin casually using the spare computing power of their home PC.

However, it appears that hackers have already taken over the Monero mining business. There are several recent cases of hackers embedding malware to hijack the computing power of other systems. The Australian government was also a victim of this hacking attempt.

Cryptomining is such a new phenomenon that there are few guidelines in place to ensure trust. Selecting a company to work with an a fair compensation model are two important questions every potential miner needs to consider.

As cryptocurrencies appreciate in value, the allure of cyber crime will continue to grow. As NEM, Mt Gox and other large-scale thefts demonstrate, criminals are succeeding in their quest to compromise online exchanges.

With respect to mining, profitability remains an elusive question, especially with the recent downturn in the market. That said, there are many alternative motivations involved in mining digital currency, including supporting the network, influencing the market and using additional revenues to fund other business operations.

Disclaimer: The author owns bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies. He holds investment positions in the coins, but does not engage in short-term or day-trading.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Author:
Chief Editor to Hacked.com and Contributor to CCN.com, Sam Bourgi has spent the past nine years focused on economics, markets and cryptocurrencies. His work has been featured in and cited by some of the world's leading newscasts, including Barron's, CBOE and Forbes. Avid crypto watchers and those with a libertarian persuasion can follow him on twitter at @hsbourgi