Their faith was key. It was a currency, too. For the system to work, they had to feel safe.
How Liberty Reserve’s Virtual Currency Works
In effect, they had to believe in Budovsky. Now that Liberty Reserve was frozen, and fortunes stood to be lost, users around the globe began frantically searching the Internet in the hope of gleaning a clue about Arthur Budovsky. Everything seemed to hinge on who this man was and what his intentions were. Over the past several months, I corresponded with Budovsky by e-mail and met him twice in person. I also met his mother, Irina, who told me she felt from the start that her son was exceptional. When he was born, in , Irina was living in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where she worked as a bookkeeper at a factory that made washing machines.
Irina separated from her husband, Victor Budovsky, when Arthur was just 2 years old, and she and her only child grew very close. Arthur was always an unusual boy, she said: serious, bookish, and uncomplaining. Irina got married again, to an engineer named Anatoly, and in , when Budovsky was 17, the family emigrated to the United States.
They settled in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. It was a Hasidic neighborhood, and Budovsky was initially puzzled by the people he saw in the streets: flocks of somber-looking men always dressed in black suits. For a while he thought he was witnessing a succession of funerals, and wondered why his neighbors seemed to be dying in droves. Not long afterward, he had a nervous breakdown. His mother said that for two or three years, Budovsky refused to step outside the apartment. Budovsky insists it was just nine months.
Almost immediately, Budovsky took it apart. Irina walked into his room, saw the mess, and expressed her horror. To her amazement, he quickly reassembled the machine. He began working as a computer consultant, starting with just a few individual clients and eventually helping small businesses set up their networks. He also reconnected with an acquaintance named Vladimir Kats, a Russian immigrant from St. They had met while working at a day camp for kids, not long after Budovsky arrived in the United States.
Budovsky described Kats to me as willful, smart, lazy, and extremely libertarian. Kats also had a dark side. In , he would plead guilty to receiving child pornography. This came as no surprise to Budovsky. They shared a love of computers and in the early s became interested in the emerging world of digital currencies. The pioneer of this field was, oddly enough, a radiation oncologist from Florida named Douglas Jackson.
Jackson had envisioned e-gold as being free of government regulation, and immune to the ups and downs of the financial markets, because it was backed by actual gold, in the form of bars stored in vaults. Budovsky and Kats were intrigued by what Jackson was doing, and in they bought an online currency exchanger known as GoldAge and set about expanding the business. GoldAge was a middleman—if you wanted to convert dollars to e-gold, or vice versa, you needed to use such an outfit.
Budovsky and Kats took a commission of 2 to 4 percent on every transaction, and, according to a subsequent indictment, they converted tens of millions of dollars. Budovsky said he felt that he was at the vanguard of a revolutionary way of banking. But trouble was brewing.
After the September 11 attacks, U. So when Congress passed the Patriot Act, in , it included provisions to make prosecuting money transmitters easier, especially if they failed to get a government-issued license. It was unclear how these rules applied to digital currencies and exchangers, though, and Budovsky never applied for a license. One summer night in , at a. Groggily, he rose from his bed and asked who it was. A voice on the other side of the door said that his car was parked improperly and had to be moved. Budovsky was indicted by the Manhattan district attorney for operating a money-transmitting business without a license.
He was given five years of probation. A year later, the federal government indicted Douglas Jackson, the radiation oncologist, and the other principal operators of e-gold. He served no jail time. E-gold was allowed to continue functioning under stricter requirements, but it lost users and eventually shut down. The digital-currency boom seemed to be on the wane. Budovsky, however, had already begun working—with some help from Kats—on a digital currency of his own. Budovsky and I e-mailed each other almost daily, and in these exchanges he maintained a grandiose, even anachronistic politeness.
It was common for him to sign off with a rhetorical flourish, wishing me and my family safe travels, an enjoyable weekend, good health. At times I felt as if I were trading missives with a friendly aristocrat from the s. Americans have come to rely on PayPal as a safe and easy way to buy things on the Internet. For people the world over, this is a nonstarter. By some estimates, as many as 2. They are effectively shut out of the modern economy. Budovsky told me repeatedly that he just wanted to build a better, faster, easier payment method.
Users would go through exchangers to buy LRs, just as they had in order to buy e-gold.
Remarks and Statements
Liberty Reserve would take a 1 percent commission on all transactions made within its system. Liberty Reserve was designed to be more stable: LRs were pegged to the U. As it turned out, in , when Liberty Reserve was incorporated, the country was teeming with entrepreneurs, thanks to lax regulations and the fact that companies based there did not have to pay taxes on profits earned outside the country.
David Boddiger, the editor of an English-language news site based in Costa Rica called The Tico Times, told me that in the mids, Costa Rica had struggled to rein in online gambling and Ponzi schemes. Costa Rica was also increasingly known as a place where dirty money could be cleaned. Of course, none of this proves that Budovsky had nefarious intentions.
Costa Rica was, in theory, just a tropical paradise with low taxes and minimal government interference—an ideal habitat for a pair of pioneering tech nerds. Neither Budovsky nor Kats spoke Spanish fluently, though, so they teamed up with a local named Ahmed Yassine Abdelghani, who oversaw the day-to-day operations of Liberty Reserve. Abdelghani was a naturalized Costa Rican citizen originally from Morocco. According to several people who knew him well—including Budovsky—he was temperamental, violent, and prone to heavy drinking.
One former employee told me that Abdelghani often walked around the office brandishing a blackjack and that he once threatened to kill a man for failing to deliver some company uniforms on time. Abdelghani is at large in Costa Rica and could not be reached for comment. By , Liberty Reserve was gaining tens of thousands of new accounts each month. The company soon looked the part of a successful tech start-up. It had more than 50 employees in departments including human resources, accounting, marketing, and legal, and provided around-the-clock customer service and technical support.
The company housed its servers in the Netherlands and employed programmers in Ukraine. Its customers, of course, were everywhere. At least some users were legitimate businesspeople. PayPal would demand a refund, and Rossetti would be out the money. Even as Liberty Reserve grew into a thriving tech company, Budovsky was furtive about his involvement.
That was his business name. Even his business cards would say Eric. But he added that his own name was a liability for the company. In the wake of the GoldAge debacle, the Associated Press had described him as a money launderer. He was convicted only of transmitting money without a license. As a result, he says, he had to distance himself from the company. Budovsky says he sold Liberty Reserve to Abdelghani soon after the company launched, and that he then worked for the company as a contractor, helping to make the networks run. Budovsky told me he simply wanted to avoid the tiresome burdens of ownership.
On paper, at least, he was just another tech contractor. For Budovsky, life in Costa Rica was good. But he liked cars, and his collection came to include a Jaguar and a Mercedes. He bought three of them to decorate his house. Budovsky says that Kats never came to Costa Rica or contributed to the company in any meaningful way.
Liberty Reserve exchange shuts down, founder arrested - CoinDesk
In , Kats and Budovsky had a falling-out, and Budovsky says that he gave his old friend a six-figure gift—a kind of unofficial severance—and that after this, Kats had nothing to do with Liberty Reserve. Vargas, who was in her mids, supported herself and her three young daughters by selling empanadas at a food stand in front of an immigration office. She told me she and Budovsky were introduced early in by one of her regular customers, who happened to be an immigration lawyer. In the months following their introduction, they went on dates.
I said yes. On behalf of their clients, which include major financial institutions, Aharoni and his team monitor Internet forums that hackers use to sell stolen credit card information.
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After Liberty Reserve was taken down in May, activity on these forums initially slowed and then picked up again, with some hackers saying they would accept Perfect Money for payments, he said. Perfect Money, which has been in operation since at least , could not be reached for comment.
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A request submitted through its website failed to elicit a response, and the company does not list a phone number for its offices or identify any management or employees. Reuters could not determine who owns Perfect Money. Its website says it is based in Panama, but the Panamanian government said in a statement in January that Perfect Money does not have offices in the country and has not been issued any licenses by securities regulators to operate there. Law enforcement agencies in the United States and around the world have expressed concerns that digital currencies, which are not tied to any particular government, are emerging as vehicles for hackers, cyber criminals and drug dealers to launder money.
Currencies like Perfect Money are governed by a single company or entity that administers the transfer of units between customers. Once a user obtains an account, he or she can transfer Perfect Money units to other users inside the system. Online vendors of all kinds can choose to accept digital currencies like Perfect Money as payment for their goods and services. But the feature that makes some digital currencies ideal for money laundering is anonymity. Through its website, www.
Indeed, LIBERTY RESERVE has become a financial hub of the cyber-crime world, facilitating a broad range of online criminal activity, including credit card fraud identity theft, investment fraud, computer hacking, child pornography, and narcotics trafficking. At or about the same time, E-Gold and several of its principals were charged with various offenses including money laundering. In registering the user was required to provide basic identifying information, such as name, address, and date of birth.
Accounts could therefore be opened easily using fictitious or anonymous Identities. The exchangers charged transaction fees for their services, typically amounting to five percent or more of the funds being exchanged. Such fees were much higher than chose charged by mainstream banks or payment processors for comparable money transfers. The "merchants" who accepted LR currency were overwhelmingly criminal in nature. The allegations contained in paragraphs 1 through 29 of this Indictment are repeated and realleged as if fully set forth herein.
Title 1B, United states code, section makes it a crime to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business.
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