The currency that’s really fueling crime

Crypto can’t hold a candle to old-fashioned $100 bills

Peter A. McKay
3 min readMar 6, 2024
Photo by Giorgio Trovato via Unsplash

The $100 bill is now America’s most popular cash denomination, with more of them in circulation than even the venerable $1 note bearing George Washington’s likeness.

So says the Wall Street Journal’s Oyin Adedoyin in a recent story about the c-note’s meteoric rise. Adedoyin reports that more than half the supply of $100 bills is held abroad, and there are enough $100 bills circulating in the U.S. for every living citizen to have 55 of them.

If you’re not sitting on such a trove of large bills, or perhaps have never even seen such a stack of simoleons in your entire life, it won’t surprise you to hear the Journal also reports much of the supply of $100 bills seems to be going toward illegal activity.

You think?

For purposes of this newsletter, the $100 bill story strikes me as important context for any discussion of crime conducted via cryptocurrency — a frequent criticism of the technology itself.

Of course, any amount of crypto-funded crime is bad. Let’s get that out of the way. It is still crime, after all. I’m just saying, let’s maintain some sense of proportion about it, especially relative to crime conducted with old-fashioned paper issued by Uncle Sam.

Any reasonable reading of the numbers would suggest the latter is vastly larger. It’s difficult to measure crime precisely, of course, as drug dealers, terrorists, and the like tend not to fill out surveys. But we can make some educated guesses looking at macro data.

The research firm Chainalysis recently estimated there was $24.2 billion in illegal crypto activity worldwide in 2023. But that’s really just an initial estimate, subject to go up quite a bit over time as analysts identify more on-chain wallets associated with criminals.

Clearly, some ne’er-do-well has engaged in an elaborate ruse here to hide the slip of paper with the private key to their crypto wallet under these piles of weapons and $100 bills.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the 2023 crypto crime tally more than doubles over time to a round $50 billion, once Chainalysis has fuller data in hand.

Now let’s get back to that mushrooming pile of paper Benjamins. According to the chart accompanying the Journal article, there are now more than $1.75 trillion worth of $100 bills in circulation.

That means even our purposefully high estimate of crypto crime is less than 3% the supply of $100 bills.

Now, what percentage of those bills do you think are being used in crime? I’ll let you make your own assumption about that part. But let it suffice that many readers will probably place the figure multiple times higher than 3%.

Also worth noting: If it wants take a really, really, really effective step to fight crime, the government could stop printing $100 bills anytime it wants. Yet, as the Journal notes, it chooses not to.

This post was adapted from my free email newsletter #w3w, which covers decentralization every Sunday. To get the full version in your inbox, including additional headlines from around the web, subscribe here.



Peter A. McKay

Storyteller, thought leader, and marketer focused on blockchain/web3. I publish #w3w, a newsletter about decentralization. Ex-reporter for the Wall St Journal.