Before they were charged on Tuesday with conspiring to launder $3.6 billion in Bitcoin stolen from one of the world’s largest virtual currency exchanges, Ilya Lichtenstein and his wife, Heather Morgan, dispensed advice and opinions on the cryptocurrency’s prospects and the importance of safeguarding your stash.
“Bitcoin will become a lesson in economics textbooks of the classic bubble riddled with scams,” Ms. Morgan wrote in a 2014 blog post.
Mr. Lichtenstein also appeared concerned about how people were caring for their crypto. In a November post on Twitter, he criticized a news article for including “almost nothing about how to secure your keys” — the digital passwords that allow owners to access their Bitcoin.
But Mr. Lichtenstein’s own keys were not secure enough to fend off a search warrant, federal officials said. And not long after the Justice Department announced the charges against the couple, their social media musings and extensive online presence had transformed them from relative unknowns to objects of widespread fascination and scorn.
Ms. Morgan, 31, describes herself on LinkedIn as a “serial entrepreneur, prolific writer, irreverent comedic rapper, and investor in B2B software companies with high growth potential.”
She raps in clunky fashion under the name Razzlekahn — the self-styled “crocodile of Wall Street” — in YouTube videos like “Versace Bedouin,” which she calls her anthem and which was filmed, naturally, on Wall Street.
“Everyone worries too much about what’s proper,” Ms. Morgan raps awkwardly in one vulgarity-filled video. “But not Razz, no shame, that don’t stop her.”
She filmed the video close to home: She and Mr. Lichtenstein live in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium on an upper floor at a 42-story luxury building at Wall and Water Streets, records show. The unit has an estimated value of about $1 million, according to the real estate listing site Zillow, but the couple appears to rent rather than own the property.
Ms. Morgan’s other endeavors included contributing articles to Forbes and Inc. In her Forbes pieces, she profiled an up-and-coming chef who helped cater last year’s Met Gala, charted the career arc of the teenage Australian rapper the Kid Laroi and delved into the differences between how men and women negotiate pay.
In one 2020 article for the magazine, she explored how to “protect your business” as “cybercriminals and fraudsters are taking advantage of disruptions caused by the pandemic.”
For Inc.’s entrepreneurial-minded audience, she wrote service-oriented pieces with titles like “3 Great Ways to Train New Hires,” “4 Simple Marketing Rules That Drove $370 Million in Sales” and “3 Steps to Become an Expert in Anything.”
Inc. did not respond to a request for comment about Ms. Morgan’s ties to the publication. Forbes declined to comment, but in its own article about her arrest, it said in an editor’s note that “Heather Morgan was a ForbesWomen contributor from July 2017 until Forbes ended the relationship in September 2021, and was never an employee.”
Her LinkedIn profile says she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and international relations from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in economics of international development at American University of Cairo. The registrar’s office at the University of California, Davis confirmed that she graduated in 2011. Information about her studies at American University of Cairo was not immediately available.
Mr. Lichtenstein, 34, who is known as “Dutch,” describes himself on LinkedIn as a “technology entrepreneur, coder and investor” who is “interested in blockchain technology, automation, and big data.”
He graduated from high school in Glenview, Ill., and from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, according to his LinkedIn profile. His academic record could not immediately be confirmed.
It was not clear when the couple met. But in a June 2019 Facebook post, Mr. Lichtenstein described how he proposed to “my best friend and the woman of my dreams” in a “weird, creative multi-channel marketing campaign” that involved Razzlekhan posters slapped all over New York City and, ultimately, a Times Square billboard.
The Bitcoin at issue in the charges against Mr. Lichtenstein, who the authorities said has dual Russian and U.S. citizenship, and Ms. Morgan was stolen by hackers from the Hong Kong-based Bitfinex exchange in 2016.
A Guide to Cryptocurrency
A glossary. Cryptocurrencies have gone from a curiosity to a viable investment, making them almost impossible to ignore. If you are struggling with the terminology, let us help:
Bitcoin. A Bitcoin is a digital token that can be sent electronically from one user to another, anywhere in the world. Bitcoin is also the name of the payment network on which this form of digital currency is stored and moved.
Blockchain. A blockchain is a database maintained communally, that reliably stores digital information. The original blockchain was the database on which all Bitcoin transactions were stored, but non-currency-based companies and governments are also trying to use blockchain technology to store their data.
Cryptocurrencies. Since Bitcoin was first conceived in 2008, thousands of other virtual currencies, known as cryptocurrencies, have been developed. Among them are Ether, Dogecoin and Tether.
Coinbase. The first major cryptocurrency company to list its shares on a U.S. stock exchange, Coinbase is a platform that allows people and companies to buy and sell various digital currencies, including Bitcoin, for a transaction fee.
Crypto finance. The development of cryptocurrencies spawned a parallel universe of alternative financial services, known as Decentralized Finance, or DeFi, allowing crypto businesses to move into traditional banking territory, including lending and borrowing.
NFTs. A “nonfungible token,” or NFT, is an asset verified using blockchain technology, in which a network of computers records transactions and gives buyers proof of authenticity and ownership. NFTs make digital artworks unique, and therefore sellable.
A Justice Department official declined to comment on whether the couple were involved in the hacking itself, but officials said they had employed various techniques to try to launder the stolen Bitcoin.
The maneuvers, according to prosecutors, included opening accounts under false names; moving stolen funds in small sums in thousands of transactions to avoid detection; using computers to automate their transactions; spreading funds across virtual-currency exchanges; and using U.S. business accounts to obscure their illegal activity.
Despite their efforts, that activity sometimes drew the scrutiny of cryptocurrency exchanges. In one instance, the couple used false identities to open seven accounts on a single exchange, only to have them frozen when the identities could not be verified. The accounts held over $186,000 in assets.
They nonetheless used cryptocurrency housed at another exchange to buy prepaid debit cards. One $500 card bought from Walmart was used to pay for Uber and Hotels.com purchases and to buy a PlayStation.
In a less mundane example of where the authorities say the stolen Bitcoin went, the couple is accused of using some of it to buy nonfungible tokens, or NFTs — blockchain-based collectibles that Kevin Roose, a New York Times columnist, has described as “intangible fragments of the internet” that can be bought and sold “as if they were physical objects.”
The couple, who were charged in a criminal complaint, made an initial appearance in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday. A judge ordered them released on bond: $5 million in Mr. Lichtenstein’s case and $3 million in Ms. Morgan’s. A lawyer representing them did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Morgan’s public opining about Bitcoin included the 2014 blog post in which she wrote that “it is difficult to predict the exact time window of when Bitcoin’s value will reach zero.”
“But it will happen sooner or later,” she continued, “because it is a fragile asset which retains no real value.”
And in a message posted on Twitter in December, she revisited her opinion that the cryptocurrency market might be overinflated.
“The amount of spam I’m getting about sketchy crypto get rich stuff really makes me feel like this bubble is gonna pop soon!” she wrote.
Katie Benner contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.