Oxford University graduate jailed for cryptocurrency theft

A computer genius who dropped out of his Oxford post-graduate studies stole cryptocurrency worth £2.1m.

Using nom de plume ‘Norbert van den Berg’, Dutch national Wybo Wiersma set up a website for people to create the 81-character ‘seed’ password required by those investing in the Iota online currency.

Although the website – iotaseed.io – claimed to generate the string of characters randomly for its users, 40-year-old Wiersma wrote a ‘malicious’ code into the site that enabled him to save the passwords.

In early 2018, he was able to use these codes to steal £2.1m-worth of Iota crypto from 99 accounts – transferring the funds into accounts held in two different cryptocurrency exchanges.

Sending him down for four-and-a-half years at Oxford Crown Court on Friday morning, Judge Michael Gledhill KC said: “The fact of the matter is that you decided to abuse your skills in order to steal. This is dishonesty at the highest level.”

He added: “Why did you commit these offences? Greed and dishonesty are the two words that readily come to mind.”

READ MORE: Oxford PhD student admits stealing £2m worth of cryptocurrency

Wiersma, of Amsterdam, had been due to stand trial until early March but on Thursday – the day a jury was expected to be sworn in – returned to court to plead guilty to a single charge of theft.

Prosecuting, Julian Christopher KC told the judge on Friday that the groundwork for the thefts were laid in 2017 and 2018, when the iotaseed.io website was set up – and paid for using cryptocurrency and his Norbert van den Berg moniker.

The trap sprung, he began transferring his victims’ Iota currency from early 2018. He set up four accounts with online exchange Bitfinex, transferring the stolen funds into them.

When Bitfinex became suspicious of the activity and froze the accounts, Wiersma tried to convince them of the genuineness of the accounts. 

In respect of two different accounts, he sent two sets of images – showing men holding Belgian and Australian identity documents respectively.

The passports were proven to be fakes.

Wiersma subsequently used another exchange, called Binance, but again his accounts were frozen. He sent another image, this time of a man holding a UK passport, in an attempt to get one account unfrozen.

By 2018, a number of victims in Germany reported the thefts to police. The authorities in Hesse tracked the offending to the UK and the case was passed to the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit’s cyber crime unit.

READ MORE: Live updates from sentencing of crypto crook

Officers raided his home in Bradmore Road in Oxford’s leafy Park Town in January 2019. Almost all the electronic devices seized were so heavily-encrypted detectives have still been unable to access them. However, the desktop computer was unlocked when police raided, enabling them to track his activities.

In interview, Wiersma initially claimed to have been hacked before answering no comment to questions put to him by the police.

He returned to his native Netherlands where, on Christmas Eve 2020, he was arrested and remanded until his extradition to the UK in April 2021.

The majority of the stolen funds were frozen before they could be transferred out by the defendant, meaning they were now in police hands.

READ MORE: Oxford court judge asks ‘Do I look like a rubber stamp?’

“This covers 93 of the 99 individuals and all but approximately £13,000-worth of the £2.156m,” Mr Christopher said.

In mitigation, Andrew Wheeler KC said the defendant was remorseful, a practising Christian and keen to return to his studies upon his release.

By pleading guilty, he had spared the taxpayer the cost of a lengthy trial. He had also signed away any claim to the frozen cryptocurrency, which was now worth around £5m.

This story was written by Tom Seaward. He joined the team in 2021 as Oxfordshire’s court and crime reporter.  

To get in touch with him email: Tom.Seaward@newsquest.co.uk

Follow him on Twitter: @t_seaward

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.