A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned that Tether, one of the world’s most traded cryptocurrencies, has become a key tool for criminals, money launderers and scammers in East and Southeast Asia.
The report claims that Tether’s stability, ease of use, anonymity and low transaction fees have made it the preferred choice for fraudsters and money launderers alike and that its popularity is illustrated by the surging volume of cyber fraud, money laundering and underground banking cases involving the stablecoin.
However, some crypto enthusiasts and experts have challenged the validity and accuracy of the UN report, arguing that it is based on flawed assumptions, incomplete data and biased analysis. They contend that Tether is not the most preferred currency for illicit activities, that it is not as anonymous and untraceable as the report suggests, and that bad actors can use other cryptocurrencies and techniques to evade detection and regulation.
In this article, I will examine both sides of the debate and offer my own opinion on the matter.
What is Tether, and why is it popular?
Tether is a company that runs a blockchain platform and issues digital tokens pegged to real-world currencies with the backing of its own financial reserves, most notably USDT, or tether, which is tied to the US dollar one-for-one. Tether claims that its tokens are fully backed by fiat currency and other assets and that they provide a stable and transparent alternative to volatile and unpredictable cryptocurrencies.
Tether’s main appeal lies in its ability to bridge the gap between the traditional and the crypto worlds, offering users the benefits of both. Tether users can enjoy the speed, security, low cost and global reach of blockchain transactions while also maintaining the stability, liquidity and familiarity of fiat currencies.
Tether also enables users to access various crypto platforms and services, such as exchanges, wallets, lending, gaming and gambling, without having to deal with the complexities and risks of converting between different currencies and tokens.
According to CoinMarketCap, Tether is the world’s third-largest cryptocurrency by market capitalisation, behind only Bitcoin and Ethereum, with a market cap of over US$95 billion as of January 16, 2024.
Tether also has the highest daily trading volume of any cryptocurrency, surpassing even Bitcoin, with an average of over US$100 billion traded per day. Tether is widely accepted and supported by hundreds of crypto platforms and service providers, as well as some regulated entities, such as banks and payment processors.
What are the allegations against Tether?
Despite its popularity and success, Tether has also been plagued by controversies and criticisms, ranging from its lack of transparency and accountability to its involvement in market manipulation and fraud to its vulnerability to hacking and theft. Tether has faced several lawsuits, investigations and regulatory actions from various authorities and stakeholders, both in the US and abroad, over its business practices, operations and compliance.
The most recent and alarming accusation against Tether comes from the UNODC report, which alleges that Tether has quickly become the platform of choice for money laundering and fraud operations across East and Southeast Asia.
The report cites intelligence from law enforcement and financial authorities in the region, who report that Tether ranks among the most popular cryptocurrencies used by organised crime groups, especially those operating online casinos, which have emerged as among the most popular vehicles for cryptocurrency-based money launderers.
The report also details how Tether is used to facilitate various schemes, such as “sextortion”, a form of blackmail threatening to post sexual content or information about a person, and “pig butchering”, a socially engineered romance designed to “fatten up” targets before extracting money. It claims that Tether’s appeal to criminals lies in its speedy and irreversible transactions, its low detection and traceability, and its ability to bypass regulatory and legal barriers.
The same report also highlights the role of “motorcades”, which are sophisticated, high-speed money laundering teams that specialise in Tether transactions. These teams advertise their services on social media platforms, such as Facebook, TikTok and Telegram, and offer to exchange Tether for fiat currency or other cryptocurrencies for a percentage of the total laundered and transferred funds. It says that these teams have seen a rapid uptick in recent years and that they pose a serious challenge to law enforcement and financial authorities.
What are the counterarguments to the UN report?
In my humble opinion, the UN report has been met with scepticism and criticism, and some other experts also question its methodology, data, and conclusions. They argue that the report is based on anecdotal evidence, selective cases and biased sources and that it does not provide a comprehensive and accurate picture of the crypto landscape and the role of Tether in it. I want to also point out the flaws and limitations of the report and offer alternative explanations and perspectives on the issue.
One of the main counterarguments to the UN report is that Tether is not the most preferred currency for illicit activities and that other cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and BNB, are perhaps more widely used and more suitable for such purposes.
It is cited in various studies and reports that show that the majority of crypto transactions are legitimate and legal and that only a small fraction of them, around one per cent, is associated with criminal and illicit activities.
I would also argue that Tether is not as anonymous and untraceable as the report suggests and that it is possible to track and monitor Tether transactions using blockchain analysis tools and techniques. They point out that Tether transactions are recorded on public ledgers, such as the Bitcoin, Ethereum and Tron blockchains, and that they can be linked to real-world identities and entities using various methods, such as IP addresses, wallet addresses, exchange accounts, KYC information and network activity.
It also contends that bad actors can use other cryptocurrencies and techniques to evade detection and regulation and that Tether is not the only or the best option for them. They mention the use of privacy coins, such as Monero and Zcash, which offer enhanced anonymity and obfuscation features, such as stealth addresses, ring signatures, zero-knowledge proofs and confidential transactions.
They also mention the use of crypto mixers, such as Tornado Cash and Wasabi, which offer decentralised and trustless solutions for mixing and tumbling coins, making it harder to trace their origin and destination.
What is my opinion on the matter?
Based on my research and analysis, I think that the UN report has some merit and validity, but it also has some flaws and limitations. I think that Tether is indeed a popular and convenient tool for some criminals, money launderers and scammers, especially in East and Southeast Asia, where there is a high demand and supply for crypto services and products and where there is a lack of effective and consistent regulation and enforcement.
I think that Tether’s features and benefits, such as its stability, ease of use, low cost and global reach, also make it attractive and useful for such actors, who can exploit its loopholes and weaknesses to their advantage.
However, I also think that the UN report is not conclusive and definitive and that it does not capture the whole and true picture of the crypto landscape and the role of Tether in it. I think that Tether is not the only or the most preferred currency for illicit activities and that other cryptocurrencies and techniques are more widely used and more suitable for such purposes.
I think that Tether is not as anonymous and untraceable as the report suggests and that it is possible to track and monitor Tether transactions using blockchain analysis tools and techniques. I think that the UN report is based on anecdotal evidence, selective cases and biased sources and that it does not provide comprehensive and accurate data and analysis on the issue.
To stay within my argument, here is some food for thought — Tether has conducted the biggest-ever USDT freeze of US$225 million linked to a human trafficking syndicate. They worked hand in hand on this occasion with leading crypto exchanges, OKX and DOJ. This shows Tether’s willingness to help the industry and, to a certain extent, stay accountable and transparent.
Therefore, my opinion is that it is not fair or accurate to label it as the crypto of choice for criminals. I think that Tether has a legitimate and valuable role and function in the crypto ecosystem and that it provides a stable and transparent alternative to volatile and unpredictable cryptocurrencies.
I think that Tether also has a lot of room and potential for improvement and innovation and that it can address and resolve its controversies and criticisms by enhancing its transparency and accountability, complying with relevant laws and regulations, and cooperating with authorities and stakeholders.
What is Tether, and why has it gained popularity in the cryptocurrency market?
Tether is a blockchain platform that issues digital tokens, such as USDT, pegged to real-world currencies, offering stability and transparency. Its popularity stems from bridging traditional and crypto worlds, combining the benefits of blockchain transactions with the stability and familiarity of fiat currencies.
What are the allegations against Tether regarding its involvement in illicit activities?
What counterarguments exist against the UNODC report's accusations towards Tether?
In the article, Anndy Lian argues that the UN report lacks comprehensive data and relies on anecdotal evidence. They contend that Tether is not the primary choice for illicit activities, pointing to other cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Moreover, they emphasize the traceability of Tether transactions through blockchain analysis tools and highlight alternative options, such as privacy coins and crypto mixers.
What is the Anndy Lian's opinion on the UNODC report and Tether's role in illicit activities?
Anndy Lian acknowledges the UN report's merit but criticizes its flaws and limitations. They argue that Tether serves as a tool for criminals in specific regions due to the demand for crypto services and lax regulation. However, the author contends that Tether is not the exclusive choice for illicit activities and suggests that the report is based on biased sources. They advocate for a more nuanced perspective on Tether's role in the crypto landscape.
How does Tether respond to accusations of involvement in criminal activities, and what is the author, Anndy Lian's overall opinion on Tether?
Tether has taken action against criminal activities, evidenced by a significant USDT freeze linked to a human trafficking syndicate, showcasing a commitment to industry integrity. The author concludes that labeling Tether as the go-to crypto for criminals is unfair, emphasizing its legitimate role in the crypto ecosystem. Anndy Lian believes Tether can improve by addressing controversies, enhancing transparency, complying with regulations, and collaborating with authorities.
Anndy Lian is an early blockchain adopter and experienced serial entrepreneur who is known for his work in the government sector. He is a best selling book author- “NFT: From Zero to Hero” and “Blockchain Revolution 2030”.
Currently, he is appointed as the Chief Digital Advisor at Mongolia Productivity Organization, championing national digitization. Prior to his current appointments, he was the Chairman of BigONE Exchange, a global top 30 ranked crypto spot exchange and was also the Advisory Board Member for Hyundai DAC, the blockchain arm of South Korea’s largest car manufacturer Hyundai Motor Group. Lian played a pivotal role as the Blockchain Advisor for Asian Productivity Organisation (APO), an intergovernmental organization committed to improving productivity in the Asia-Pacific region.
An avid supporter of incubating start-ups, Anndy has also been a private investor for the past eight years. With a growth investment mindset, Anndy strategically demonstrates this in the companies he chooses to be involved with. He believes that what he is doing through blockchain technology currently will revolutionise and redefine traditional businesses. He also believes that the blockchain industry has to be “redecentralised”.