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North Korea’s quest for crypto raises alarms for Western businesses

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A laptop displays a message in red text after being infected by a ransomware as part of a worldwide cyberattack in 2017.

A laptop displays a message after being infected by a ransomware as part of a worldwide cyberattack in 2017. Rob Engelaar/ANP/AFP

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For years North Korea has been notorious for making perfect $100 bills. That is, perfect fake ones.

Now the nation’s scam artists are moving on from paper money to focus on money in ones and zeros: cryptocurrency. And for all the talk of cryptocurrencies being unhackable, the FBI is warning that ransomware from North Korea is a real threat to your digital wallet.

North Korean hackers are trying to steal cryptocurrencies any way they can, said Dina Temple-Raston, host of the “Click Here” podcast. The following is an edited transcript of the episode “North Korea’s Cryptocurrency Obsession.”

Jon Wu helps with hiring at a cryptocurrency company called Aztec Protocol. Back in April, he received a job application from a guy who said he was from Canada and had crypto mining experience.

And it all seemed routine until Wu read the cover letter’s weird sign off: “The world will see a great result from my hands.”

“That’s, like, the type of thing someone with a laser-cannon arm and a microchip for an eyeball would say, you know, like [a] Bond villain,” Wu said.

When the interview rolled around, the candidate apologized and said the camera on his computer was broken.

“I asked him where he worked. He couldn’t answer that question at all,” Wu said. “And in fact, when pushed on where he last worked, he actually muted himself.”

When he comes back on the line, it sounded like he was in a busy office.

“There were all these other voices who also sounded like they were either in a call center or interviewing people,” he said.

And they were speaking a mix of English and Korean.

“I kind of freaked out a little bit, and I turned to my team and I said, ‘I think I interviewed a North Korean hacker.'”

A few weeks later, the FBI, State and Treasury departments issued a joint advisory warning that Pyongyang was encouraging its domestic IT workers to pose as U.S. employees, and cautioning cryptocurrency exchanges.

Wu never confirmed that his job candidate was North Korean, but the FBI advisory seemed to be describing exactly what had happened.

Eric Chien, a security researcher at Symantec, said North Korea has been finding creative ways to hack for years, and their new target of choice is cryptocurrency companies. He said many of those companies are small startups that “have not invested that much in security,” and may be more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Consider the big heist from spring. North Korean hackers broke into a crypto company called Ronin and stole more than $600 million.

Juan Zarate set up a sanctions and anti-money-laundering office at the U.S. Treasury after 9/11, and he said the North Koreans are on the lookout for even bigger heists.

And that may help explain why they have started applying for jobs in companies like Jon Wu’s.

“The North Koreans have resorted to cyber-heist and ransomware and crypto-related attacks. This is now a major part of how they make money,” Zarate said. And in a bid to do that, they’re trying to plant insiders.

Dina Temple-Raston also has a related piece on a a two-time North Korean defector.

A New York Times story from last month says that since the beginning of the pandemic, North Korea’s borders have been closed with very little revenue coming in. It also highlights how many citizens don’t have computers or access to the internet. Still, many North Korean hackers are groomed from an early age to be the best thieves in cyberspace.

And at the top of the show, you heard me mention North Korea’s creation of fake 100 dollar bills that looked very convincing. Well, that was an issue that was frustrating the FBI in the ’90s, when those bills showed up in the United States.

You should check out a really great video from the BBC, which calls the counterfeit bill the “superdollar.” In fact, these fake $100 bills inspired the redesign of the $100 note in 2013.

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