by Evan Sixtin
A young Russian couple on holiday was robbed of approximately $100,000 worth of bitcoin in their condo unit at The Lago Naiharn Beach in Phuket, Thailand on the night of January 15, 2018. The robbery was reported on January 17, 2018, to Lt. Chanat Hongsuttichaikun of the Chalong Police. A Phuket Tourist Police volunteer who is a Russian national, Igor Protasov, assisted with the case.
Crypto and Electronics Robbery
As the victims, Maxim Lastovka, 27, and his partner Anna Nikulina, 22, entered their residence, a fourth-floor condo unit in Mueang district, at about 10 pm (+7 UTC), the suspects moved in posing as Interpol agents and forced their way inside the home. The suspects are also believed to be Russian. They covered Mr. Lastovka’s head with a black bag and separated him from Ms. Nikulina.
The couple were held hostage for six hours. However, it is not clear if the robbers were armed. They threatened to kill Mr. Lastovka if he did not comply with their demands. The victims were forced to reveal the passwords to their laptops and the private key for the account that contained their bitcoin.
Lastovka was told to transfer all the cryptocurrency in his account to the crooks’ bitcoin account. In addition to $100,000 in bitcoin, the bandits got away with the couples’ MacBook, MacBook Pro, HP notebook, iPhone X, a Visa credit card issued in Russia, and both their passports. The victims were told if they did not submit, they would be injected with drugs which would disable or kill them, and were told that if they went to the police to report the incident, the robbers would return and inject them with drugs.
This threat is what prevented the Russian couple from reporting the incident until two days later. After it was reported, police were able to track the stolen iPhone and determine that it had already traveled to Nakhon Si Thammarat Province in the mainland of Thailand and then south into Western Malaysia.
Although it is still not sure how the thieves knew the couple held a large savings in bitcoin, it is suspected that they are part of a Russian criminal gang that had tracked and followed the couple for some time before the robbery occurred. Lastovka mentioned to authorities that he had recognized one of the suspects and remembered seeing him hanging around the area before the robbery. An international arrest warrant has been issued, and Thailand police are coordinating with Malaysian authorities to capture the criminals.
String of Criminality
This frightening robbery, unfortunately, is in line with a number of thefts, scams, murders, and disappearances involving tourists in Thailand, especially on the island of Koh Tao. A Russian woman is still missing after her disappearance on February 15, 2017, while vacationing at Koh Tao.
As bitcoin gains more users, and large sums of the cryptocurrency are held secure with a single private key, the question arises; how does one prevent people with illicit intentions (police and government agencies included) from forcing, blackmailing, or intimidating others to reveal their private keys? This type of “security flaw” is commonly known as the ‘$5 wrench attack.’
There are some ways to mitigate an attack of this sort, although, depending on the situation, they might not always be effective. First, it’s important not to publicly reveal the value of your bitcoin or cryptocurrency accounts or share it with people you don’t completely trust. Second, split your funds up into different accounts; some in a hardware wallet, some in a paper wallet, etc. Trezor’s hardware wallet supports hidden or dummy accounts; if you ever find yourself in a sticky situation, you could pass over the ‘decoy’ account, allowing the attackers to run off with some cryptocurrency, with a larger proportion under a different passphrase remaining under your control.
We are still surfing the bleeding edge of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, and there are many issues still to be worked out, but we may see several solutions come forth in 2018 for dealing with this problem and other significant concerns.