As we previously have blogged, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) became one of the first regulators to wade into the regulation of cryptocurrency when it released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is a Money Services Business (“MSB”). As a MSB, and according to FinCEN, an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency therefore is a “financial institution” subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and its various AML-related requirements, unless a limitation or exemption applies.  Accordingly, the Department of Justice has prosecuted operators of cryptocurrency exchanges for a failure to register with FinCEN as a MSB, and FinCEN has brought civil enforcement proceedings against such exchanges for alleged failures to maintain adequate AML programs and file required Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARS”), among other alleged BSA violations.

Recently, regulators of all stripes across the globe have been moving swiftly to regulate cryptocurrency in various ways (see herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Indeed, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has been very vocal and aggressive in claiming that many if not all Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) involving cryptocurrency represent securities subject to the jurisdiction and supervision of the SEC, and already has filed several enforcement proceedings involving ICOs. Moreover the SEC just yesterday issued a statement that it considers exchanges for cryptocurrency to also be subject to its jurisdiction. Likewise, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) has asserted that cryptocurrencies are commodities subject to its jurisdiction; this week, a federal court agreed with this assertion in a CFTC enforcement action.  The CFTC claims that its jurisdiction reaches beyond cryptocurrency derivative products to fraud and manipulation in the underlying cryptocurrency spot markets.

But there is a potential problem with all of these regulators simultaneously rushing in to assert their respective power over cryptocurrency businesses, and it is a tension that does not seem to have attracted much public attention to date. Specifically, BSA regulations pertaining to the definition of a MSB, at 31 C.F.R. § 1010.100(ff)(8)(ii), flatly state that a MSB does not include the following:

A person registered with, and functionally regulated or examined by, the SEC or the CFTC, or a foreign financial agency that engages in financial activities that, if conducted in the United States, would require the foreign financial agency to be registered with the SEC or CFTC[.]

How can certain cryptocurrency businesses be subject to the claimed jurisdictions of FinCEN as well as the recent regulatory newcomers to this area, the SEC and the CFTC? Continue Reading FinCEN Letter to U.S. Senate Committee on Finance Purports to Thread Needle of Potentially Competing Jurisdictions by Regulators over Cryptocurrencies

On February 23, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) signaled that the inter-governmental body “will step up its efforts in monitoring the use of cryptocurrencies in money laundering.”  While the 37-member international body remains without an official policy for implementation, the pronouncement nonetheless demonstrates the heightened Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) concern from regulators across the globe concerning illicit uses of cryptocurrency.

Notably, the FATF’s pronouncement comes on the heels of recent enforcement-related measures taken in various countries.  As we previously have blogged, the European Parliament and its executive arm, the European Council, recently agreed to an amendment to the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive to include measures targeting exchange platforms for virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, as well as prepaid cards.  More recently, France’s top financial markets regulator issued a statement that online trading platforms for cryptocurrency derivatives fall under the European Union’s central legislation regulating financial markets.  In the U.K., the Parliament’s Treasury Committee announced on February 22 that it has launched a probe to examine both the impact of cryptocurrencies on financial institutions and how best to police the new technology.  Meanwhile, South Korea’s ban on anonymous trading of cryptocurrencies—part of the country’s new policies which represent the first AML guidelines for cryptocurrencies among the nations of the FATF—took effect on January 30.

The United States is also part of this growing global focus on cryptocurrencies and related concerns involving AML and money laundering.  For example, during his recent remarks at the Financial Services Roundtable’s Spring Conference on February 26, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that the Department of Justice is developing a “comprehensive strategy” to address the concern that cryptocurrencies may be used for money laundering.

Given regulators’ intense focus on the burgeoning industry, it is likely that cryptocurrencies will be a topic of discussion at the upcoming G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Notably, in a February 7 letter to Nicolas Dujovne, the current president of the G20 and Argentina’s Minister of Finance, the finance ministers and central bank governors of France and Germany requested that cryptocurrencies be placed on the agenda.  Moreover, during a recent event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. will work with G20 nations to ensure cryptocurrency accounts do not “become the Swiss-numbered bank accounts.”

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

This week, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs held hearings focused in part on Anti-Money Laundering  (“AML”) and the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  We discuss highlights of the testimony of the Chairpersons of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), as well as testimony from a senior official at the Justice Department and a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, concerning upcoming changes to beneficial ownership requirements and the current regulatory landscape of the cryptocurrency industry. Continue Reading AML/BSA Focus by U.S. Senate Committee Testimony – From Beneficial Ownership to Cryptocurrency

As the value of bitcoin continues to soar (USD:BTC this past weekend exceeded $19,000.00:1), we thought that now would be a good time to emphasize the need to ensure regulatory compliance with the many federal and state AML rules and regulations, in addition to those segmented across various countries. A caveat: This post is far from exhaustive, and before undertaking any investment in cryptocurrency, it would be wise to consult with an attorney familiar with the rules applicable to the cryptocurrency sector.  Due to the nascency of the sector, the practical application of previously existing laws and regulations is rapidly evolving.

To begin, the notion that bitcoin and other digital tokens represent a currency only for criminals has been dispelled. Indeed, there is no question that investment in cryptocurrencies is inherently lawful and increasingly commonplace.  In 2017 alone, investment in initial coin offerings, or token sales, has exceeded $1.5 billion; in a similar vein, the value of certain cryptocurrencies now exceeds a number of Fortune 50 companies.  Most recently, CBOE and CME, the world’s largest futures exchange, launched bitcoin futures contracts.

With this in mind, and as we have written on this blog before (see herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), it is clear that regulators are moving aggressively to bring the cryptocurrency sector into the fold of existing rules and regulations. To be sure, applying these rules to the burgeoning sector has been like fitting a square peg in a round hole; a bedrock of the initial cryptocurrency boom was the promise of anonymity for its users. Conversely, identity verification is a bedrock of AML compliance. Continue Reading Beyond Best Practices: Regulatory Compliance Now a Necessity in the Cryptocurrency Sector

After over a year of negotiations, the European Parliament and its executive arm, the European Council, recently agreed to an amendment to the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive to include measures targeting exchange platforms for virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, as well as prepaid cards.  These new regulations will require an increase in transparency by the trusts and trading companies to reveal the holders of virtual currency to thwart potential money laundering, tax evasion, and anonymous funding of terrorism. Primary among these regulations is a requirement to provide beneficial ownership information to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest” to access data on the beneficial owners of trusts.

This focus on beneficial ownership in regards to virtual currency is entirely consistent with the general AML regulatory efforts in the United States and around the globe over the last few years, which have emphasized heavily the need to identify the beneficial owners of financial accounts, real estate and other assets in order to attain a more transparent financial system.

The regulation adopted by the European Parliament and European Council also comes as Bitcoin’s prices surged over 1,700 percent since the start of 2017.  This outstanding growth has increased main stream interest in the virtual currency while also sounding alarm bells as some fear that Bitcoin is a bubble bound to burst.  A key part of the amendment is that access to beneficial ownership information should be provided to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest.”  Continue Reading EU Adopts Regulations Increasing Transparency in Virtual Currency Trading to Combat Money Laundering, Tax Evasion, and Terrorism Financing

We are very pleased to be presenting on the topic of SEC enforcement against broker-dealers and mutual funds relating to alleged underlying Anti-Money Laundering and Bank Secrecy Act violations, and associated private class action lawsuits, at the upcoming meeting of the Securities Regulation Committee of the New York State Bar Association on this Wednesday, December 13, 2017.  This is a topic of increasing importance on which we have blogged repeatedly (see here, here, here and here); FinCEN also has proposed similar AML regulations for investment advisors.  We also will discuss the hot topic of potential SEC enforcement involving digital currency and Initial Coin Offerings, or ICOs, and the general role of AML in the digital currency industry. The program will begin at 7:00 p.m. and is hosted at the New York City offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.  Thanks again to the Committee for this invitation; we look forward to it.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

IRS Will Obtain Identifying Information Regarding Clients Who Conducted Any Transaction Equal to $20,000 or More

Last week, a federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of California granted in part and denied in part a motion by the IRS to enforce a “John Doe” summons served on Coinbase, Inc., which operates a virtual currency wallet and exchange business headquartered in San Francisco. As we have blogged, the court granted last year the IRS’s application to serve the summons on Coinbase, which then resisted and moved to quash. The recent ruling paves the way for potential criminal or civil tax investigations involving Coinbase customers, as well as potential money laundering investigations.  The ruling also indicates that the IRS might be able to seek more information from Coinbase about specific individuals as its investigation progresses.

Needless to say, the semi- or pseudo-anonymity offered by virtual currency – traits which historically have made virtual currency attractive to some of its users – are the same traits which have made the IRS and other law enforcement agencies and regulators intensely interested in the use of virtual currency. Although the use of virtual currency generally may cloak the user and create practical problems for investigators, the Coinbase action demonstrates that virtual currency is not truly anonymous in the face of a focused law enforcement inquiry. Continue Reading Court Enforces — Partially — IRS “John Doe” Summons Served on Virtual Currency Exchanger

We are pleased to announce that Ballard Spahr has created a Virtual Currency Team.  Our website is here; our team brochure is here.

Virtual currency is poised to revolutionize the way companies and people conduct business. But the development of new products and services is outpacing the regulatory and enforcement landscape, creating challenges for those looking to tap into this dynamic and complex new market sector.

Our team brings together lawyers focused on legal areas important to virtual currency providers and users.  This work involves of course Anti-Money Laundering considerations, the Bank Secrecy Act, and related state laws and licenses, as well as white collar defense and investigations.  However, virtual currency presents a host of many other potential legal issues, beyond just the subject matter of this blog. Our team has been constituted accordingly.  It includes lawyers skilled in securities regulation and enforcement, cyber security and data privacy, tax, and intellectual property. The team can help clients launch initial coin offerings; register when necessary with the SEC, FinCEN and under state law; develop and implement new products; comply with tax obligations; protect data; and generally navigate the complicated maze of government regulation and enforcement. Together, we hope to provide a comprehensive legal resource to digital currency market participants.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

As digital currency continues to evolve, it continues to pose unfolding compliance, regulatory and criminal law challenges.  We will present two webinars on this topic in September, in which we will discuss issues posed under the Bank Secrecy Act and the money laundering and federal securities laws, among other issues.

The first webinar, “Current Trends in Criminal Law:  The Mechanics of Virtual Currency, from Legitimate Use to Misuse,” will be presented through Lawline, on September 7 at 11:30 am ET.

The second webinar, “Eye on Virtual Currency and Blockchain Technology,” will be presented through Ballard Spahr LLP, on September 19 at 12:00 pm ET.  Our colleague Odia Kagan also will participate in this free webinar, which also will discuss some of the data privacy issues posed by digital currency.

We hope that you join us.  You may review the webinars and register through the links provided above.  The innovative blockchain technology that is at the heart of digital currency likely will be embraced increasingly by more “traditional” financial institutions, so these issues have broad relevance.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

As digital currency becomes more ubiquitous, state and federal regulators across the United States, as well as regulators in many other countries, are examining how existing regulatory structures need to be adapted to account for unique aspects of digital currency. News from both India and Australia reflect different approaches to the ever-evolving world of digital currency and potential money laundering risks associated with that currency.  As we previously have blogged, U.S. enforcement personnel aggressively have asserted jurisdiction over international digital currency operations.  As we will discuss, it appears that digital currency businesses will find themselves having to comply with a kaleidoscope of various Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) regulatory regimes across the globe. Continue Reading As Digital Currency Spreads, So Does its Global Regulation: India and Australia Enter the Fray