In the course of a decade as a special agent with the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Tigran Gambaryan has seen them all.
From plundered crypto exchange Mt Gox, to dark-net marketplace Silk Road and the corrupt cops stealing its funds, to child pornography site Welcome to Video, to the scam involving the hacking of 130 VIP Twitter profiles, Gambaryan was the point man in nearly every major investigation involving bitcoin or cryptocurrency. “I’m a dinosaur in the crypto world,” he says. “When I first started, Silk Road was one of the only places where you could spend your bitcoins, other than buying pizza.”
Gambaryan had to teach himself how to follow breadcrumbs on blockchains, the digital, obfuscated, but public networks where cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether are traded.
Blockchain investigation was a new field, for which the tools were initially few and rudimentary. At the same time, it was familiar terrain. “I was a financial investigator. My thing had always been ‘Follow the money,’” Gambaryan says. Following that mantra he would work his way to the weak link in a chain of transactions; often, that was an account with a big cryptocurrency exchange, which in some cases could help him ID the suspect. “I was one of the first people to start sending law enforcement requests to crypto exchanges,” Gambaryan says.
In 2021, the tables turned: He joined Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, as its vice president of global intelligence and investigations. Gambaryan is now on the other side of the crypto fence, trying to spot bad behaviour on the exchange and fielding requests from law enforcement around the world. Since joining Binance, he has been busy trying to track down the people behind SQUID, a cryptocurrency scam named after—but not affiliated with—Netflix’s blockbuster series Squid Game.
Gambaryan did not take the leap alone. He was just one member of a dream team of crypto investigators Binance brought on board from law enforcement in 2021, including Gambaryan’s IRS confrere Matthew Price, former US Treasury investigator Greg Monahan, and Europol’s dark-web boffin Nils Andersen-Röed. Another hire, Aron Akbiyikian, once worked as a digital-crime-focused detective in Mariposa County, California. “There’s a little bit of a brain drain that is happening,” Gambaryan says. “There’s a massive exodus of special-agent experts in the field of cryptocurrency who have left government agencies and joined the cryptocurrency industry. Everyone’s gone basically.”
Predictably, some crypto gumshoes have joined a budding gaggle of forensics companies, which combine proprietary digital tools and traditional investigative skills to assist governments and companies with crypto-related investigations. That is, for instance, the case of Beth Bisbee, head of US investigations at Chainalysis, one of the leading outfits.
Until 2021, Bisbee was a cryptocurrency specialist for the Drug Enforcement Administration. But after helping the DEA grok blockchain research—and leveraging her capabilities to crack cases—Bisbee says her work started feeling “a little bit stagnant.” The DEA was focused on drug crime, but she knew that crypto chicanery extended well beyond that sphere.