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  • FinCEN director discusses approach to virtual currency and emerging technology

    Financial Crimes

    On August 9, FinCEN Director Kenneth A. Blanco delivered remarks at the 2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference to discuss, among other things, the agency’s approach to virtual currency and its efforts to protect financial institutions from being exploited for illicit financing purposes as new financial technologies evolve and are adopted. Blanco commented that while innovation provides customers with greater access to financial services, it can also create opportunities for criminals or serve as a vehicle for fraud. Blanco discussed several areas of focus, such as (i) the regulation of virtual currency and initial coin offerings (ICOs), along with coordinated policy development and regulatory approaches done in conjunction with the SEC and CFTC; (ii) examination and supervision efforts designed to “proactively mitigate potential illicit finance risks associated with virtual currency”; (iii) anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regulatory compliance expectations for companies involved in ICOs or virtual currency transmissions; (iv) enforcement actions taken against companies that fail to implement effective programs; (v) the rise and importance of virtual currency suspicious activity report filings which help the agency identify and investigate illicit activity; and (vi) the development of an information sharing virtual currency-focused FinCEN Exchange program. Blanco emphasized that “individuals and entities engaged in the business of accepting and transmitting physical currency or convertible virtual currency from one person to another or to another location are money transmitters subject to the requirements” of the Bank Secrecy Act.

    Financial Crimes FinCEN Bank Secrecy Act Virtual Currency Anti-Money Laundering Combating the Financing of Terrorism SARs SEC CFTC Fintech Initial Coin Offerings

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  • CFTC advisory warns customers to research digital coins and tokens before purchasing

    Fintech

    On July 16, the CFTC issued an advisory to alert customers to exercise caution and conduct thorough research prior to purchasing virtual/digital coins or tokens. Specifically, customers are reminded (i) to conduct extensive due diligence on all “individuals and entities listed as affiliates of a digital coin or token offering”; (ii) to confirm whether the digital coins or tokens are securities and, if so, verify that the offering is registered with the SEC before investing in an Initial Coin Offering (ICO); (iii) to verify how the money will be utilized, if they can get it back, and what rights the digital coin or token provides; and (iv) that many ICOs are frauds.

    Fintech CFTC Cryptocurrency Virtual Currency Initial Coin Offerings

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  • Financial Stability Board publishes report discussing methods for monitoring crypto-asset risk

    Fintech

    On July 16, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) published a report, which asserts that, while “crypto-assets do not pose a material risk to global financial stability at this time,” there exists a need for “vigilant monitoring in light of the speed of developments and data gaps.” According to “Crypto-assets: Report to the G20 on work by the FSB and standard-setting bodies” (the Report), the FSB and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI) have developed a framework to monitor and assess vulnerabilities in the financial system resulting from developments in the crypto-asset markets. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the FSB earlier released a letter to G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors in March noting that “[c]rypto-assets raise a host of issues around consumer and investor protection, as well as their use to shield illicit activity and for money laundering and terrorist financing.” The Report specifically discusses actions being undertaken by international regulatory bodies, including (i) the CPMI’s investigation into distributed ledger technologies and monitoring of payment innovations; (ii) the International Organization of Securities Commissions creation of an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) Consultative Network, development of a framework for members to use when dealing with investor-protection issues stemming from ICOs, and exploration into regulatory issues regarding crypto-assets platforms; and (iii) the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision’s assessment of the materiality of banks’ crypto-asset exposures, exploration of appropriate prudential treatment of those exposures, and monitoring of crypto-asset and other financial technology developments. The Financial Action Task Force is also working separately on a report to the G20 on crypto-asset concerns regarding money laundering and terrorist financing risks.

    Fintech Financial Stability Board Cryptocurrency Virtual Currency Initial Coin Offerings

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  • SEC obtains court order halting allegedly fraudulent initial coin offering

    Securities

    On May 29, the SEC announced it obtained a court order halting an alleged fraud involving an initial coin offering (ICO) that raised as much as $21 million from investors in the U.S. and overseas. In addition, the court approved an emergency asset freeze and appointed a receiver for the firm allegedly responsible for the scheme, the SEC said in its press release. According to the SEC’s complaint filed May 22 in California federal court, the firm’s president and one of two firms he controls allegedly violated the antifraud and registration provisions of the federal securities laws, by, among other things, (i) making misleading statements to investors about the nature of business relationships with the Federal Reserve and nearly 30 well-known companies, and (ii) including “fabricated, misleading, and/or unauthorized” testimonials from corporate customers on the firm’s website designed to “establish a presence and seeming expertise.” A second firm controlled by the defendant has also been charged with violating antifraud provisions. Among other things, the SEC seeks permanent injunctions, the return of profits associated with the fraudulent activity, plus interest and penalties, and a ban prohibiting the president from participating in ICOs in the future.

    Securities Initial Coin Offerings SEC Fraud Fintech

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  • Massachusetts securities division halts five initial coin offerings

    Securities

    On March 27, Massachusetts’s Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth Securities Division (Division) entered into separate consent orders with five companies that allegedly violated the Massachusetts Uniform Securities Act by promoting initial coin offerings (ICOs) using unregistered securities. The five companies, which conduct business in Massachusetts, offered the ICOs via websites, including social media platforms. Under the terms of the consent orders, the companies are prohibited from selling unregistered or non-exempt securities in the state and are censured by the Division.

    Visit here for additional InfoBytes coverage on ICOs.

    Securities State Issues Initial Coin Offerings Cryptocurrency Virtual Currency Enforcement

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  • House Financial Services Committee holds hearing on potential regulation of cryptocurrencies and ICOs

    Federal Issues

    On March 14, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities, and Investment held a hearing entitled “Examining Cryptocurrencies and ICO Markets” to discuss recommendations for Congress concerning the regulation of cryptocurrencies and initial coin offering ("ICO") markets. Subcommittee Chairman Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., opened the hearing by stating that “[c]ryptocurrencies and ICOs provide an innovative vehicle for startups to potentially access capital and grow their businesses,” and emphasized that potential regulation of this market should not stifle innovation in the area of digital currencies and capital formation.

    The hearing’s four witnesses offered numerous insights into the shaping of regulation in the crytopcurrency and ICO markets. The witnesses discussed emphasizing the potential of ICOs for U.S. investors, disclosures in the ICO market, and the need for regulation to be clear with definitive classification guidelines. Additionally, witnesses commented on the unanticipated negative consequences of regulation, including the risk associated with developing a regulatory framework around the cryptocurrency market since the market is still emerging. The hearing included discussion on the functions of cryptocurrency and the ICO market, including distinguishing an ICO offering from a traditional Initial Public Offering (IPO) and the different uses of “scarce tokens,” such as bitcoin, which would impact whether cryptocurrencies were regulated as commodities or securities. 

    Federal Issues Virtual Currency House Financial Services Committee Fintech Cryptocurrency Bitcoin Initial Coin Offerings

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  • SEC exams to focus on ICOs, cybersecurity, and AML programs

    Securities

    On February 7, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) released its 2018 Examination Priorities, which includes cryptocurrency and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) for the first time. According to the document, the OCIE’s 2018 priorities reflect “certain practices, products, and services that OCIE believes may present potentially heightened risk to investors and/or the integrity of the U.S. capital markets.” The document highlights five themes:

    • Retail Investors. Among other retail investor priorities, OCIE states it will focus on high-risk products, including cryptocurrency and ICO markets due to their rapid growth. Exams in this area will review whether there are adequate controls and safeguards to protect against theft and whether appropriate disclosures about the risks associated with the investments are given to investors.
    • Compliance and Risks in Critical Market Infrastructure. OCIE will look at important participants in the market structure, including clearing agencies, national securities exchanges, transfer agents, and entities under Regulation SCI.
    • Review of Other Regulatory Bodies. OCIE intends to review the operations and controls of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB).
    • Cybersecurity. OCIE notes that the scope and severity of cybersecurity risks have increased dramatically. According to the document, examinations will continue to focus on, among other things, data loss prevention, governance and risk assessment, and vendor management.
    • AML Programs. Anti-money laundering (AML) program examinations will focus on whether the regulated entities are “appropriately adapting their AML programs to address their obligations.” More specifically, OCIE will look at whether entities are filing accurate Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) and performing appropriate customer due diligence reviews.

    Securities Initial Coin Offerings Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Anti-Money Laundering Fintech SARs Financial Crimes

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  • SEC halts allegedly fraudulent ICO

    Securities

    On January 30, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced it obtained a court order preventing an allegedly fraudulent initial coin offering (ICO) by a Dallas-based company. According to the complaint filed on January 25, the company pitched its ICO by depicting itself as a “decentralized bank” that could automatically trade in multiple cryptocurrencies and provide a variety of consumer banking products and services based on over 700 different virtual currencies. The SEC alleges that the company failed to properly register the ICO and made materially false statements in its advertisements, such as: (i) the company’s purchase of an FDIC-insured bank; and (ii) the availability of a company-branded VISA card allowing for payment of goods and services using different virtual currencies held in a checking account with the company. The company also purportedly failed to disclose the criminal background of certain executives. According to the SEC, the District Court approved an emergency asset freeze and placed the company in receivership. Among other things, the SEC is seeking a permanent injunction and the release of profits associated with the fraudulent activity, plus interest and penalties.

    Securities Initial Coin Offerings Virtual Currency Fintech

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  • FINRA releases 2018 regulatory and examinations priorities letter

    Securities

    On January 8, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) published its Annual Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter (2018 Letter), which focused on several broad issues within the securities industry, including improving the examination program to “implement a risk-based framework designed to better align examination resources to the risk profile of [] member firms.” As previously covered in InfoBytes, last July FINRA360 (a comprehensive self-evaluation and organizational improvement initiative) prompted the organization to announce plans currently underway to enhance operations by consolidating its existing enforcement teams into a single unit. In the 2018 Letter, FINRA announced ongoing efforts to work with member firms to understand the risks and benefits of fintech innovation such as blockchain technology, as well as the impact initial coin offerings (ICOs) and digital currencies have on broker-dealers.

    Additional areas of regulatory and examination focus for FINRA in 2018 will include: (i) fraudulent activities and suspicious activity report filing requirements; (ii) business continuity planning; (iii) protection and verification of customer assets, including whether firms have implemented adequate controls and supervision methods along with measuring the effectiveness of cybersecurity programs; (iv) anti-money laundering monitoring and surveillance resources and policies and procedures; and (v) the role firms and other registered representatives play when effecting transactions in cryptocurrencies and ICOs—specifically with regard to the supervisory, compliance and operational infrastructure firms implement to “ensure compliance with relevant federal securities laws and regulations and FINRA rules.”

    Securities Fintech FINRA Examination Fraud Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Anti-Money Laundering Initial Coin Offerings Virtual Currency SARs Blockchain Financial Crimes

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  • SEC Obtains Emergency Court Order Against Canadian Firm for Allegedly Violating Federal Securities Law; Halts Initial Coin Offering

    Securities

    On December 4, the SEC announced it had obtained an emergency court order to freeze the assets of a Canadian company and the company’s founders (Defendants) and block Defendants’ ability to continue to raise funds through an initial coin offering (ICO). At the time the order was issued, the ICO had raised $15 million since August by “promising investors returns of 1,354% in under 29 days.” This is the first enforcement action taken by the SEC’s recently established Cyber Unit, whose focus includes distributed ledger technology and initial coin offering violations. (See previous InfoBytes Cyber Unit coverage here.)

    According to a complaint filed December 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Defendants allegedly violated the anti-fraud and registration provisions of U.S. federal securities laws by making a series of materially false and misleading statements when marketing and selling securities as digital tokens/cryptocurrencies to obtain investor funds. From August to the present, Defendants purportedly raised $15 million through the ICO, and made false representations including, among other things, that: (i) the firm consisted of large teams of experts across the globe, and (ii) investors would receive certain promised returns (1,354% in less than a month) on investments if all tokens were sold. Further, Defendants allegedly failed to disclose (i) that a portion of the proceeds from the ICO funds would pay personal expenses, and (ii) that the company’s principal executive was “a known recidivist securities law violator in Canada.” The SEC seeks relief in the form of permanent injunctions, monetary penalties and interest, and an “officer-and-director bar and a bar from offering digital securities” against the company’s founders.

    Securities SEC Initial Coin Offerings Enforcement Blockchain Cryptocurrency Fintech Virtual Currency Distributed Ledger

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