Crypto Crime Series: Decoding Ethereum Scams

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This post is the second in our “Crypto Crime” series, detailing the recent trends in crypto crime and our predictions for the coming year. Sign up here for access to the complete Chainalysis Crypto Crime Report: Decoding Increasingly Sophisticated Hacks, Darknet Markets, and Scams.

Fewer scams, bigger revenues: a radically changing landscape for Ethereum crime

In 2018, only about 0.01% of ether was stolen in scams, worth $36 million, double the $17 million take for 2017. Furthermore, the number of scams declined through 2018, although those that remained were bigger, more sophisticated and vastly more lucrative.

The rise and fall of scamming activity

Ether has long been known as the cryptocurrency of choice for scams, for a variety of reasons, (which we dive into in our full report). From late 2016 through the end of 2018, Chainalysis has identified over 2,000 scam addresses on Ethereum that have received funds from nearly 40,000 unique users. Scam activity increased dramatically in 2018 with nearly 75% of scamming activity taking place that year.

Understanding types of scams

Though phishing, ponzi schemes and ICO exits are the most common scam types, there are additional types of Ethereum scams, such as infection scams. The frequency and success rates of these types of scams has changed over time.


In 2018, scamming activity shifted in two ways. First, after the success of phishing scams in 2017, many more criminals jumped on the bandwagon. They saturated the market with phishing attacks, but fewer users took the hook. As a result, phishing scams were much less effective than in previous years. In 2018, the median amount sent to a scam was around 50% less than in the prior year. A smaller group of innovative criminals executed more complex ponzi and ICO exit scams that generated millions of dollars in income. These more sophisticated schemes dominated the second half of the year.

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Learn more about KYT for Stablecoins & Token Issuers

Monitor transactions across the token’s full lifecycle, from issuance to redemption—and any transaction in between.

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How Transaction Monitoring Works at Chainalysis

One of the reasons Chainalysis KYT is so popular is that it uses global anti-money laundering (AML) standards common across regulatory bodies. We apply these standards when each transaction is screened.

Cryptocurrency businesses also need to understand the aggregate risk profile of each of their users. That’s why Chainalysis KYT provides a view of risk profiles at the user level, which reflects all of a user’s screened transactions. For example, if an organization has a user who receives funds from a darknet market, our software automatically flags that transaction as high risk. If the user sends funds to a regulated exchange, our software marks that transaction as low risk. And so on. Every screened transaction feeds into a user’s risk profile. Chainalysis KYT displays all user profiles, sortable by high, medium or low risk (using traffic light colors) for easy scanning.

We apply our risk methodology in real time to all users within an organization’s user base. This saves compliance teams from laborious, manual screening work. They can instead focus on developing comprehensive compliance programs. Organizations that work with us tell us this has enabled them to meet regulatory expectations and launch or grow their businesses.

Customizable risk level

We’re now giving our customers the ability to adjust the risk level of a category or a service. For example, not all jurisdictions around the world treat gambling the same way. In some countries, gambling is not considered a legitimate business activity and thus online gambling sites would be treated as high risk. In other countries, gambling is not considered illicit, which means properly licensed online gambling sites would be treated as low risk.

The ability to customize the risk level of categories and specific services means our customers can automate even more of their compliance workflows.

Organization-wide dashboard

One of the most useful facets of Chainalysis KYT is having a view of all users and their risk profiles directly accessible upon first logging in. It provides a visual alert of which users have high risk profiles and therefore require the most immediate attention. In keeping with the spirit of simplified visual cues, we have now launched a dashboard that summarizes key indicators at the total organization level. For example, organizations can now see what percentage of their user base is falling under high, medium or low risk. They will soon be able to see things like total exposure by category, or total transaction volume per day. These and other metrics will provide our customers additional understanding of their organization’s total exposure trends over time.

In-app chat

At Chainalysis, we strive to provide as much support to our customers as we can. To make it easier to interact with us, we added in-app chat to Chainalysis KYT. This allows our customers to send us questions or feedback without having to leave the environment. Our team typically responds within minutes.

Looking ahead

We know software is most valuable when it makes the lives of our customers easier and more productive. This means we’ll continue to add intuitive capabilities to our compliance products while increasing versatility for ongoing transaction monitoring. In the coming months, we will improve how transaction information is displayed. We will also boost our monitoring capabilities for other cryptocurrencies beyond Bitcoin. And we will deepen the integration with Chainalysis Reactor, which is used for enhanced due diligence and investigations.

The momentum around cryptocurrency compliance is only just starting and we look forward to continuing to offer software that builds trust in blockchains.

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