A Curious Case of Lazarus

A Curious Case of Lazarus

Malta’s crypto boom started around 2017 when the Maltese government began actively promoting the country as a blockchain-friendly destination. It aimed to become a global leader in the regulation and adoption of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. The Maltese government introduced a comprehensive legal framework to provide clarity and regulation for crypto businesses.

This regulatory framework attracted numerous crypto exchanges, blockchain startups, and other crypto-related businesses to set up operations in Malta. The island nation was dubbed “Blockchain Island” due to its supportive regulatory environment.

Several major cryptocurrency exchanges, such as Binance, OKEx, and BitBay, established offices or relocated their headquarters to Malta to take advantage of the favorable regulatory climate. These moves helped Malta gain recognition as a global hub for blockchain and cryptocurrency innovation.

The crypto boom brought significant investment and job opportunities to Malta, boosting its economy and establishing its reputation as a forward-thinking jurisdiction in the blockchain space. However, there were also challenges, including concerns about regulatory compliance and potential risks associated with crypto assets.

Naturally, many people from all corners of the world came to Malta to ask for help in their first endeavors of such kind, and also naturally, many people saw that as a business opportunity, including Cristopher Emms.

Spearheading blockchain fever

Emms is a British blockchain pioneer, who has worked in senior roles for various technology startups across the UK and Berlin, where he was introduced to blockchain technology.

He has also advised businesses on blockchain and cryptocurrency, and after the start of blockchain craze on Malta, he was one of the first people to recognize that as a great business opportunity.

In 2018 he attended a crypto conference in North Korea, organized by Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spanish businessman with ties to the North Korean government. After that, a whole series of controversies take place.

That same year, Emms co-founded a company in Malta called Green Goblin, a legal and corporate service company specializing in the medicinal cannabis industry. He co-founded it with Caruana Curran, a lawyer, whose role becomes much bigger down the line in this whole affair.

Emms and Caruana Curran still maintain equal ownership shares of the company, with Emms holding his 50% stake through his Gibraltar-based company, Emms Ventures Limited. Emms stepped down from his position as director of the cannabis consultancy in 2020. This decision followed his involvement in the 2018 Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, which led to his inclusion on the FBI’s wanted list.

According to the US Department of Justice: “In his own sales pitch, Emms allegedly advised North Korean officials that cryptocurrency technology made it ‘possible to transfer money across any country in the world regardless of what sanctions or any penalties that are put on any country’.”

The FBI has issued an Interpol Red Notice against Emms, accusing him of “conspiring to violate” US sanctions by attending the North Korea conference, so to avoid his imminent arrest and possible 20 years in prison, he fled to Russia seeking asylum, where he resides to this day, working on state-owned RT television.

Gaming lawyer

Even though Gianluca Caruana Curran has close personal and business ties with Cristopher Emms, he never was accused of conspiring with North Korea. He has his own share of controversies though, and his North Korean connections should not be dismissed too early.

The self-proclaimed “gaming” lawyer is best known in Malta for representing Yorgen Fenech, a well-known maltese businessman.

Caruana Curran himself was a part of Paradise paper leaks, and is involved as executive member, secretary and/or legal advisor in many companies that specialize in online gambling and casinos, that accept cryptocurrency as method of payment.

One such company is N1 Interactive, where he is also a significant shareholder, and director of one of its daughter companies N1 Greece.

N1 has a wide range of online casinos, and is quite well known in the community, with software company SoftSwiss being the provider of software solutions, while simultaneously having the same major shareholder – Ivan Montik.

Gianluca Caruana Curran and Ivan Montik, aside from being business partners, have good personal relations, which can easily be confirmed by looking at Montik’s private Facebook profile.

Montik and his business dealings with sanctioned Russians are dubious in their own right, but what really catches the eye is the Lazarus Group attack that happened on July 22nd 2023.

Shadow moves of Lazarus

The notorious hacker group called Lazarus, among other names, is a collective allegedly orchestrated by the North Korean government. Despite its elusive nature, researchers have connected numerous cyber assaults to this group from 2010 to 2023. Initially considered a criminal outfit, it has since been categorized as an advanced persistent threat due to its deliberate objectives, level of danger, and diverse array of tactics employed during operations. They are considered a weapon of North Korean dictatorship and a threat to global security.

Last year, Lazarus group conducted a number of attacks on crypto wallets and exchanges, stealing over $300 million, which amounts to nearly 18% of all crypto losses made in 2023.

One of the affected platforms was CoinsPaid, a crypto payment platform owned by Ivan Montik.

In the attack, Lazarus stole $37.3 million from CoinsPaid, quickly laundering the stolen funds through various channels, not giving CoinsPaid time to do anything to stop them.

Following the incident, CoinsPaid collaborated with Match Systems to conduct a thorough investigation into the breach, uncovering the methods employed by the Lazarus Group. Max Krupyshev, the CEO of CoinsPaid, expressed confidence in holding the hackers accountable for their actions.

Using the fitting title, “We know exactly How Attackers Stole and Laundered $37M USD”, company CoinsPaid gave a detailed explanation of what happened and how, attributing the success of Lazarus group to intricate social engineering more than anything.

They tell an elaborate story about how hackers tricked CoinsPaid employees in fake interviews, ultimately giving them access to their computers. After the incident, CoinsPaid took great effort in constantly reminding anyone who is willing to listen how nowadays they take an extra step to protect their customers from getting their assets stolen, and famously brag about their anti-laundering system. Something they have been accused of too.

However, it does not take too many extra steps to go back, and connect the FBI Wanted Man, Gaming Layer, North Korean Hackers and Montik.

You don’t have to be a genius to see the pattern and connection here, and there are 3 possible explanations.

Firstly, is it possible nothing out of order happened here? CoinsPaid got hacked, assets got stolen and then laundered, and Lazarus group is the real culprit? Would you believe that?

Second, can it be possible that gaming lawyer Gianluca Caruana Curran plotted with his business partner and friend Cristopher Emms to steal, or possibly help North Korea, taking advantage of his other friend and business friend Ivan Montik?

Third option. Is it possible that Emms used his connections to help Montik steal the money from his own exchange and then launder it with Caruana Curran as a mediator between the two? It’s entirely possible that Lazarus wasn’t even involved, only their methods were used so they took the blame. Sounds like a perfect alibi, wouldn’t you agree?

In any case, given the criminal and ethical background of all parties involved and taking their history into consideration, something doesn’t feel right.

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