I've come across the term of a tainted coin several times now. I understand that coins, or better, the origin of a coin can be traced throughout the blockchain.

I've read that bitcoins can be disassociated from an address, by sending it to a sufficiently large enough wallet which handles many transactions, thus making a transactions origin "untraceable".

This collides with my understanding of the blockchain, where each transaction can be tracked back to its origin.

What does the concept of a tainted coin mean in this context and how can a coins taint be measured?


6 Answers 6


You can trace the coin back to its origin, the question is whether that information is meaningful.

Say I steal 50 bitcoin. I can pass them around between several different Bitcoin accounts, all mine, and you can trace them. The problem is, you don't know whether any of those transactions are real.

Say Jack has 50 bitcoins that come from a block reward and are untainted. Now, say Jack and I both deposit our 50 bitcoins in a web-based wallet. And say Jack withdraws his 50 bitcoins from that web-based wallet and he gets my 50 bitcoins.

Jack now has 50 bitcoins that you can trace to a theft and are therefore tainted. But Jack has done nothing wrong and it doesn't do any good to be able to track his bitcoins because I, the bad guy, now have untainted bitcoins.

  • Which is why all the web wallets are now spending millions of dollars to stop people from depositing tainted coins. When this becomes universal, bitcoin dies. Commented Apr 22, 2021 at 11:46

When you send coins to a large shared wallet, chances are that the coins you withdraw won't be the same as the ones you deposited. That's how you can sever the taint trail.

The key is that the wallet must not only be large, but also shared between a lot of users.

The taint on the original coins would never go away but could be diluted by mixing them with "clean" coins. For example, if you sent two coins, one tainted, one clean in the same transaction they would "mix" together and both would have 50% taint.

The concept of "mixing" has therefore two different meanings : swapping tainted coins for clean ones and mixing tainted coins with clean ones in order to "dilute" the taint.

Remember that the "taint" is always relative to some origin, it's not something absolute.


The other answers are correct, in that a mixed wallet can be used to hide tainted coins. However they miss an important point: the operator of the wallet service does have the knowledge required to trace the outbound transaction back to the original input coins, because both flows have to be associated with the wallet's internal representation of a customer account.

Good wallet services will refuse give out this information, but they are still vulnerable to being forced to reveal it, e.g. by a legal subpoena or hacking. Therefore somebody who is really serious about washing his bitcoins will need to route transactions through a series of wallets operated in different jurisdictions, on the theory that it would be impossible to subpoena or hack every wallet in the chain.


The term "Tainted Coins" is often misinterpreted as a measure of provenance. That's understandable considering the traditional definition of the word "tainted" coupled with the reality that many Bitcoins actually have been used for what would be considered nefarious purposes by standard societal norms. In fact, it is a common occurrence to be holding or trading Bitcoins that have traveled dark roads. The only coins that have absolute clean history are freshly mined coins, and much of that enters the wild pretty quickly so does not stay "clean" for long. So while it is tempting to compare tainted coins to a $100 bill that has either been used to pay for narcotics or used to actually ingest narcotics by way of a rolled up straw, this is not what "tainted coins" are in Bitcoin vernacular.

In the jargon of the science of Bitcoin, tainted refers to something that's not only counter intuitive to the definition of the term "tainted", but it's actually a fairly confusing (and boring) concept. In this case of Bitcoins, taint is simply a measure of correlation between two (wallet) addresses. The variable expressed as taint is primarily used to express this wallet connection.

To make things even less intuitive, ALL Bitcoin addresses which have received a payment, ever, are "tainted". Taint in no way effects the value or fungibility of any coin since it is not a measure of any negative characteristic that would be associated with the traditional definition of "tainted". Actually, there is a serious problem if all your coins do not have some level of taint.

Sorry to chime in on this topic months after the OP. Stack is where misnomers come to perish, so I figured it is never too late.

  • 2
    could you edit your answer further without reference to other answers? I appreciate your definition of taint and taint analysis, but it'd be better if it is stated with more clarity.
    – rny
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 10:15

A thought experiment, let's nickname it "Poisonous Gift":

Doesn't matter what cryptocurrency exactly, just assume the transaction ledger works like Bitcoin's.

Alice (wallet A) gets ransomwared by Rufus (wallet R), pays the rather large ransom (95 coins) but reports address R to the authorities, thus tainting wallet R.

Malcolm's money laundering gang (who has many unlinked but tainted wallets W,X,Y,Z and so forth, together tenthousands of coins) specialises in buying coins from well-known tainted wallets, moving all the tainted coins from wallet R into wallet M.

Security researcher and blogger Bob accepts donations: Wallet B, linked to his real name, but comparatively little income/capital, only 5 coins. Malcolm really doesn't like Bob's reporting, so wants to "poison" Bob's wallet, and get Bob in legal trouble, and is willing to spend the entirety of wallet M on it. So he just sends all the funds from M to B. Now Bob got 100 coins in his wallet, 95% directly tainted and linked to Rufus' ransomware campaign.

So when the authorities search for Rufus the ransomwarer, they see the money showing up on Bob's wallet, and might suspect him. Not to mention exchanges might not accept Bob's wallet because of the "taint", thus blocking his much-needed income.


Tainted bitcoins actually refer to coins which have gone through suspecious transactions e.g. over dark web or those transactions which can be labeled as theft cases. Let's say a hacker hacks a web based wallets database and steals 100 bitcoins while traferring them to his wallet through a transaction of hash 'X'. Now this transaction has been labeled tained along with all the bitcoins associated with it. Now what stealer does is that he moves these bitcoins from wallet to wallet or exchanges them to other coins i.e ether or xmr. This is what is called mixing or tumbling. There are very few secret exchanges here on clear web or dark web where these tainted bitcoins are sold for cash or even clean bitcoins/ether/xmr at a price lower than the actual rate. So the basic aim of these exchanges is to get hold of cleaner coins even if they have to sell tainted bitcoins at -10% or even up to -20%. This process eases the pain of mixing for them automatically.

  • This answer really doesn't have any basis in reality. Nobody is devaluing Bitcoin by 20% being it is "tainted".
    – Claris
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 12:47
  • Well that is your opinion. My opinion is based on experiences which you might not have come across yet.
    – Clin
    Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 8:11

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