A former Oxford University student has admitted stealing cryptocurrency worth more than £2m.
Wybo Wiersma, 40, created a website pretending to create ‘randomly-generated’ 81-character ‘string’ passwords required by people wanting to hold a form of online currency called Iota.
The site was a scam. The string of numbers had already been created by Dutch national Wiersma, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford.
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Over a matter of days in early 2018 – and then living in Oxford – the computer expert drained the Iota ‘wallets’ of 99 victims, stealing crypto-currency that was, then, worth £2.1m.
Arrested in a raid on his home in Bradmore Road, Park Town, by UK and German authorities in 2019, Wiersma has spent more than two years on remand awaiting trial – with the case delayed as a result of difficulties sourcing experts with the relevant IT knowledge to throw light on the crime for the jury.
A panel of 17 jurors was selected at Oxford Crown Court yesterday (January 26), with the jury warned that the trial could last until early March.
However, returning to courtroom two this afternoon, defence advocate Andrew Wheeler KC said conversations with his client had proved productive and he wished to have the charge put again by the clerk.
Standing in the dock wearing an open-necked striped shirt and dark suit, clean-shaven Wiersma, of the Netherlands, pleaded guilty to a single count of theft.
It was the only word he spoke during the hearing.
The charge laid by the Crown Prosecution Service specified that the theft was carried out between January 17 and April 30, 2018.
Outlining briefly the circumstances surrounding the theft, prosecutor Julian Christopher KC said the value of the scam was £2.156m.
The website created by Wiersma purported to create the 81-character Iota password by the user moving their mouse around the screen.
“In fact, the website did not randomly generate the 81 character string,” Mr Christopher said.
“A different string was created each time, but it was pre-determined.
“So, what the defendant was able to do once the value of the Iota had increased, was to…retrieve all of the 81 character strings that had been created in this way and use them on January 19, 2018 and over the few days after that, was then to remove all of the Iota that had been stored in the wallets.
“The defendant has pleaded guilty to removing Iota from some 99 individuals in this way, to a total value then of just over £2m.”
Wiersma was remanded in custody to be sentenced tomorrow (January 27). He has already served the equivalent of a prison sentence of at least four years.
Thanking the jury, Judge Michael Gledhill KC said that notwithstanding the technicality of the theft the case ‘would have been a relatively straightforward’ one.
He added: “The real question was two-fold: did the defendant do what is alleged, that is remove the way you’ve heard described this cryptocurrency from one account and transfer it to the account he controlled and, secondly, was he dishonest?”
The case raised the security issues inherent in such cryptocurrencies, Judge Gledhill added. “My advice would be if you have any spare cash, don’t invest it in cryptocurrency.”