On February 18, 2021, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets control (OFAC) announced a $507,375 settlement with BitPay, Inc. (BitPay). This civil settlement resolved apparent violations of multiple sanctions programs related to digital currency transactions, and is the second OFAC enforcement case brought against a business in the blockchain industry. This
On December 30, 2020, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets control (OFAC) announced a $98,380 settlement with BitGo, Inc. (BitGo). This civil settlement, regarding apparent violations of multiple sanctions programs related to digital currency transactions, is the first published OFAC enforcement action against a business in the blockchain industry.
BitGo, based in Palo Alto, California, is an “institutional digital asset custody, trading, and finance” company. The apparent sanctions violations relate to 183 instances in which BitGo failed to prevent individuals and/or entities located in Crimea, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria from using its non-custodial secure digital wallet management service. All of these jurisdictions were subject to comprehensive embargoes under OFAC regulations during at least part of the time that the transactions occurred. OFAC stated that BitGo had reason to know that users in these comprehensively sanctioned jurisdictions were using its services through Internet Protocol (IP) address data collected for security purposes, and allegedly had failed to implement controls to prevent users in such jurisdictions from accessing its services. (The violations and settlement did not involve enterprise or custodial services provided by BitGo Trust Company, Inc., an affiliate of BitGo, Inc.)
According to OFAC, between approximately March 10, 2015, and December 11, 2019, BitGo processed 183 digital currency transactions totaling $9,127.79 using its hot wallet management service for users in the comprehensively sanctioned jurisdictions who had signed up for hot wallet accounts.
On October 23, 2020, the US Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Federal Reserve Board published a joint notice of proposed rulemaking inviting comments on proposed modifications to regulations implementing the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). First, the agencies propose to lower the monetary threshold contained in the so-called “recordkeeping rule” and “travel rule” pursuant to which financial institutions are required to collect and retain information on certain funds transfers and transmittals of funds and provide such information to other financial institutions in the payment chain. Second, the proposed rule would amend the definition of “money,” as used in those rules, to clarify that it includes convertible virtual currency (CVC) and digital assets with legal tender status.
Under the current version of the recordkeeping rule, banks and nonbank financial institutions are required to collect and retain information that relates to funds transfers and transmittals of funds of $3,000 or more. The travel rule then requires banks and nonbank financial institutions to send collected information on funds transfers and transmittals of funds to other banks or nonbank financial institutions participating in the transfer or transmittal. The purpose of retaining an information trail in this manner is to help prevent money laundering and other financial crimes.
In his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, on February 12, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated that the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) will soon release new regulations related to cryptocurrency. FinCEN is responsible for issuing and implementing anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorist financing (CTF) regulations applicable to certain US financial institutions. According to Secretary Mnuchin:
We’re spending a lot of time on the issue of cryptocurrencies and digital payment systems …. on pure cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and there are others, we want to make sure that these are not used as the equivalent of secret bank accounts. So, we are working with FinCEN, and we will be rolling out new regulations to be very clear on greater transparency so that law enforcement can see where the money is going and that this isn’t used for money laundering.
FinCEN previously issued guidance on virtual currency in 2013 and 2019, which clarify how FinCEN’s existing rules for money services businesses, or MSBs, apply to “administrators,” “exchangers,” and “users” of what the agency calls “convertible virtual currency.” The MSB rules apply to certain persons dealing in fiat currency, convertible virtual currency, and other “value that substitutes for currency,” but does not treat MSBs dealing in convertible virtual currency differently than other types of MSBs. Therefore, if FinCEN were to issue new regulations specifically addressing cryptocurrencies or digital assets more broadly, such regulations would be a first of its kind.
On November 15, Director Kenneth Blanco of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) offered his most extensive remarks on blockchain since the agency’s release of updated guidance in May. Speaking at the Chainalysis Blockchain Symposium, Director Blanco offered a number of insights on FinCEN’s current priorities and industry trends.
Suspicious Activity Reports
According to Director Blanco, since the publication of FinCEN’s guidance in May, the agency has received over 10,000 suspicious activity reports (SARs) related to convertible virtual currency (CVC) with 6,600 of those SARs filed by CVC-related businesses, including exchanges and kiosks. Director Blanco noted that this was a significant increase in SAR volume, particularly from CVC-related businesses, and included SARs from dozens of businesses that had never filed a SAR with FinCEN prior to the publication of the guidance.
Director Blanco also highlighted a couple of trends in SAR reporting. The first is SARs related to “potential unregistered, foreign-located money services businesses (MSBs), specifically, Venezuela-based P2P exchangers.” A foreign-located MSB is required to register with FinCEN if it conducts business in whole or in “substantial part” in the United States. (Determining precisely what constitutes “substantial part” continues to be an area of uncertainty for industry, which Director Blanco did not address.) A second trend was CVC kiosk operators reporting on “activity indicative of scam victims upon identification of new customers who have limited knowledge of convertible virtual currencies, particularly those in vulnerable populations, including the elderly.”
On December 17th, Alan Cohn hosted the 244th episode of The Cyberlaw Podcast. We took a deep dive into all things blockchain and cryptocurrency discussing recent regulatory developments and projections for 2019.…
Continue Reading Blockchain Takes Over Episode 244 of the Cyberlaw Podcast
On November 8, the SEC issued a settled order against Zachary Coburn, the creator of the smart contract that powers the EtherDelta decentralized exchange. In the settled order, the Commission found that Coburn’s EtherDelta smart contract, which enabled trading of Ether against any other ERC20 token, and the EtherDelta website through which buyers and sellers of ERC20 tokens met, operated as an unregistered “exchange” in violation of Section 5 of the Exchange Act. Without admitting or denying the findings, Coburn consented to the order and agreed to pay $300,000 in disgorgement plus $13,000 in prejudgment interest and a $75,000 penalty. The Commission’s order notes that Coburn’s cooperation was a consideration in not imposing a greater penalty.
This is the first case involving a so-called “decentralized exchange.” …
Continue Reading The EtherDelta order: SEC continues to articulate what constitutes a cryptocurrency “securities exchange,” weighing in on “decentralized” exchanges
Government regulators are increasingly focused on blockchain and cryptocurrency activity, a development that some, such as IMF head Christine Lagarde have called inevitable. In the US, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have issued statements, enforcement actions, and penalties involving blockchain and cryptocurrency activities, and they are not the only agencies monitoring these activities. As a result, it is important for industry participants to be prepared to respond to potential regulatory inquiries.
This is why Steptoe has partnered with Thomson Reuters to publish a “one-stop” guide to the regulatory landscape and best practices for responding to blockchain and cryptocurrency-related investigations.…
Continue Reading A “One-Stop” Guide to Blockchain Regulation and Best Practices for Responding to Investigations
On July 26, 2017, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the US Department of the Treasury assessed a civil monetary penalty of $110,003,314 against Canton Business Corporation (BTC-e), one of the largest virtual currency exchanges by volume in the world, and a $12,000,000 penalty against Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national who allegedly controlled, directed, and supervised BTC-e’s operations, finances, and accounts. On the same day, a 21-count criminal indictment against BTC-e and Mr. Vinnick was unsealed, and Mr. Vinnick was arrested in Greece.
This is the second supervisory action that FinCEN has taken against a virtual currency exchanger, and the first against a foreign entity operating as a money services business (MSB) with activities in the United States. FinCEN’s action also imposes the second highest civil monetary penalty assessed against an MSB to date. FinCEN has increasingly brought enforcement actions against MSBs and other non-traditional financial institutions, and similar actions seem likely in the future.