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I just read that someone did steal 69000 bitcoins and 'vanished' with it. But how it that possible?

As far as I know, the complete chain of transactions is always visible to everyone. So at any given time you know where these 69000 bitcoins are, to which 'account' they have been moved. So you just need to follow where these bitcoins go until they are being transferred to a bank or a service, and then you can ask them who got that service.

So it is or is it not possible to steal bitcoins anonymously?

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tl;dr:

  • The blockchain doesn't always show where the money is.
  • You often can't follow the money to an identifiable organisation.
  • Many organisations can often, and sometimes must, ignore requests.

at any given time you know where these 69000 bitcoins are,

It isn't that easy. Let me quote some text from my answer to Is it true that all the bitcoins in existence are on the blockchain (the ledge), but it just depends on who the owner (address) is?


In block 669188 there is a transaction 1218…d33e. If you look at that in a blockchain explorer such as blockchair the details will be shown as

Senders

Amount Address
0.00149566 BTC 3PxGWkwnxQ88zQw8TgBiYrH4pQxhakmN16
0.05809775 BTC 3CDcCbis6dEBeksMY8uYhWyU3EaLN6vh82

Recipients

Address Amount
1C7cDqqGK5vscgPfD9d6gwcMw2tSRb4Q1Q 0.01076317 BTC
3BwbGdAidTuFLYdAhgVX1DgnoPCJ9fECRY 0.04809524 BTC

Where did the 0.00149566 BTC end up? At 1C7c…4Q1q or at 3Bwb…ECRY? No one can say, it may not be a meaningful question.


At every transaction, all the input bitcoins are completely destroyed. New bitcoins are created. There is no record of which destroyed input bitcoins correspond to which freshly-minted output bitcoins. Such a correspondence may be impossible to infer.


you just need to follow where these bitcoins go until they are being transferred to a bank or a service,

There's no obligation in the Bitcoin network for a bank or service to make their receiving bitcoin addresses identifiable.

In general bitcoin addresses are not explicitly associated with places, people or organisations. In some cases, using a lot of work studying the blockchain and making test transactions, it can be possible to infer some relationships but this is not guaranteed.

Additionally it is best practise to change the receiving address for each transaction, precisely to avoid this sort of tracing.


and then you can ask them who got that service.

I doubt US police asking a North Korean or Iranian service would get much cooperation.

Even for friendlier jurisdictions, Privacy is important to customers and organisations often have a legal obligation to protect the privacy of their customers, especially their identifying personal information. Police might have to invoke international treaties and get court orders which means providing evidence that a crime has occurred. That sort of evidence may be harder to assemble than many people might think. One person says they didn't receive the service paid for, the other says the money was a gift or that the service was in fact delivered, etc. This might be regarded as a civil dispute and not a criminal case.

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As far as I know, the complete chain of transactions is always visible to everyone.

True

So at any given time you know where these 69000 bitcoins are, to which 'account' they have been moved.

Bitcoin is based on UTXO, it has no accounts. You can follow the transactions and check unspent transaction outputs. But those outputs can belong to anyone. Not necessarily an exchange, service etc

So you just need to follow where these bitcoins go until they are being transferred to a bank or a service, and then you can ask them who got that service

Not necessary someone needs to use a KYC service and link bitcoin with their identity. There are lot of things people can do with bitcoin online however in most of the cases, links are broken or made difficult to analyze for someone tracking using coinjoin or using darknet markets.

Example: Hydra DNM is used by lot of hackers and criminals when they move bitcoin.

If you follow this transaction which is associated with Cashaa hack it will go to Hydra: 888b7bb217ffaa473d9cb81e29ad23095d5fa36e08b9b06bb2c4ea0c6a5bc45c

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  • But in the end if you buy something, a product or a service, there has to be a real physical contact. How can that be anonymous? Or someone pays me with bitcoin, and I can see: "Oh, that bitcoin seems to come from a hack" and I notify the police. – Alex Jun 25 at 6:12
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    No. Real physical contact is not required. You should do more research about two things I mentioned in answer: Coinjoin and DNMs. Most of the questions will be answered. – Prayank Jun 25 at 6:26
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So you just need to follow where these bitcoins go until they are being transferred to a bank or a service, and then you can ask them who got that service.

Except when you do this you end up at a bunch of homeless guys in Kharkiv who have been paid $100 to borrow their face to sign up for exchanges where "they" apparently traded a lot of BTC for XMR or DASH or ZEC or whatnot and withdrew them to wallets.

Tracing stolen BTC to a beneficiary only works as long as no one breaks the law.

There would need to be some way to "taint" stolen BTC in the network to block all transactions on them. But this opens a new can of worms (who has the authority to decide what is stolen?)

Here's one on crypto-laundering OTC brokers:

https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/01/16/130843/cryptocurrency-money-laundering-exchanges/

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