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  • Senate Banking Committee: the impact of cryptocurrency in AML/BSA enforcement

    Financial Crimes

    On January 17, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a second hearing with witnesses from the Treasury and Justice departments to further address the need to modernize and reform the Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) regime. The hearing, entitled “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Administration Perspectives on Reforming and Strengthening BSA Enforcement,” follows a January 9 hearing before the same Committee on related issues (see previous InfoBytes coverage here). Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, opened the hearing by stating the need to understand the government’s position on “strengthening enforcement and protecting the integrity of the U.S. financial system in a new technological era,” while also recognizing the challenges technology creates for law enforcement. A primary topic of interest to the Committee was “the rise of cryptocurrencies and their potential to facilitate sanctions evasion and perhaps, other crimes.”

    The first witness, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, Sigal Mandelker (testimony), noted that money laundering related to cryptocurrencies is “an area of high focus” for Treasury, and highlighted actions taken by Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), such as the release of guidance announcing that “virtual currency exchangers and administrators” are subject to regulations under the BSA. Regulated entities, Mandelker stated, are required to file suspicious activity reports (SARs) and are subject to FinCEN and IRS examinations and enforcement actions. Mandelker further commented that Treasury is “aggressively tackling” illicit financing entering the U.S. system and elsewhere, and stressed that other countries face consequences if they fail to have an AML/Combating the Financing of Terrorism regime that meets Treasury standards.

    The second witness, DOJ acting deputy assistant attorney general M. Kendall Day (testimony), informed the Committee of the recent hiring of a digital currency counsel who is responsible for ensuring prosecutors are up-to-date on the latest money-laundering threats in the digital currency field. Day also commented on recent DOJ prosecutions in this space, and emphasized the need for enhanced information sharing for law enforcement, including the benefit of deriving information from SARs.

    Financial Crimes Senate Banking Committee Department of Treasury DOJ Anti-Money Laundering Bank Secrecy Act Fintech Cryptocurrency Virtual Currency FinCEN SARs Enforcement

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  • Senate Banking Committee: Sharpen the Focus of AML/BSA Enforcement and Oversight

    Financial Crimes

    On January 9, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled, “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Opportunities to Reform and Strengthen BSA Enforcement” to discuss anti-money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act (AML/BSA) enforcement and compliance. Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) opened the hearing by stating that Congress and financial regulators must examine and address “decades-old” Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering requirements in order “to sharpen the focus, sustainability and enforcement of a modernized, more efficient U.S. counter-threat-finance architecture.” During the hearing, the Committee stressed the need to move towards a more targeted, strengthened AML framework so that banks, law enforcement, and regulators can focus on specific threats such as the financing of terrorism and sanctions evasions.

    The three witnesses offered numerous insights related to reforming AML/BSA enforcement and regulatory structures, including: (i) establishing an approach that would utilize and track intelligence and analysis rather than focusing primarily on quantifiable metrics; (ii) increasing inter-agency coordination and improving information sharing between financial institutions and regulators, and among financial institutions themselves; (iii) recognizing the importance of law enforcement participation, specifically related to the sharing of suspicious activity reports; (iv) encouraging the participation of entities outside of the banking sector, such as persons involved in real estate or those acting as proxies for financial system access; (v) supporting beneficial ownership legislation for companies formed in the United States; and (v) understanding the ways in which financial institutions are addressing the anonymity of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. The witnesses were:

    • Mr. Dennis Lormel, President and CEO, DML Associates and former Chief, FBI Financial Crimes Program (testimony);
    • Mr. Greg Baer, President, The Clearing House Association (testimony); and
    • Ms. Heather Lowe, Legal Counsel and Director of Government Affairs, Global Financial Integrity (testimony).

    Financial Crimes Senate Banking Committee Anti-Money Laundering Bank Secrecy Act SARs Cryptocurrency Virtual Currency Blockchain

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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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  • Chair Giancarlo outlines CFTC approach to virtual currency regulation

    Fintech

    On January 4, the Chair of the CFTC, J. Christopher Giancarlo, issued a statement emphasizing the CFTC’s commitment to effectively regulating virtual currency and reiterated the CFTC’s view that virtual currency is a “commodity,” as defined by the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA), and thus is subject to CFTC regulation. Giancarlo noted that it would be irresponsible to ignore virtual currency and that the CFTC is following steps to effectively and responsibly regulate the risks, specifically, “consumer education, asserting CFTC authority, surveilling trading in derivative and spot markets, prosecuting fraud, abuse, manipulation and false solicitation and active coordination with fellow regulators.” Giancarlo’s statement also noted an upcoming meeting of the CFTC Technology Advisory Committee to discuss virtual currencies on January 23.

    The CFTC also published a backgrounder on the oversight of the virtual currency futures market, which describes the “heightened review” for the self-certification process as applied to virtual currency futures products, and explains the extent to which the CFTC “not only has clear legal authority, but now also will have the means to police certain underlying spot markets for fraud and manipulation.”

    Fintech Virtual Currency CFTC Bitcoin

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  • FSOC Publishes 2017 Annual Report, Highlights Cybersecurity and Financial Innovation Risks

    Fintech

    On December 14, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) released its 2017 annual report. The report reviews financial market developments, identifies emerging risks, and offers recommendations to enhance financial stability. Highlights include:

    • Cybersecurity.  The report notes that financial institutions need to work with regulators to improve cybersecurity resilience and better understand risks. FSOC encourages the creation of a private sector council of senior executives to work with government officials and focus on ways cyber incidents may affect business operations.
    • Marketplace Lending. FSOC acknowledges that marketplace lending is still an evolving model with potential risks, such as the misalignment of incentives. However, the report notes the platform’s potential to reduce costs and expand access to credit.
    • New Technology. The report discusses challenges for supervision and regulation of virtual currencies and distributed ledger technology. FSOC observes that current regulatory practices were designed for more centralized systems, in comparison to the decentralization of data storage in this new landscape.

    Fintech Virtual Currency FSOC Bitcoin Department of Treasury Marketplace Lending Third-Party Distributed Ledger

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  • CFTC Issues Proposed Interpretation of “Actual Delivery” in Virtual Currency Transactions; Launches Virtual Currency Resource Page

    Fintech

    On December 15, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced a proposed interpretation concerning its authority over transactions involving virtual currency, which includes its view regarding the term “actual delivery” in the context of retail virtual currency transactions. According to the proposed interpretation, the CFTC claims that it has “explicit oversight authority” over “retail commodity transactions” under Section 2(c)(2)(D) of the Commodity Exchange Act. Applying a broad definition of the term virtual currency, the CFTC believes that these type of currencies are commodities, which means that certain transactions in virtual currencies are subject to CFTC oversight.

    The proposed interpretation sets forth two primary factors that market participants must demonstrate to prove “actual delivery” of virtual currency in connection with retail commodity transactions:

    • a customer has the ability to “(i) take possession and control of the entire quantity of the commodity, whether it was purchased on margin, or using leverage, or any other financing arrangement, and (ii) use it freely in commerce (both within and away from any particular platform) no later than 28 days from the date of the transaction”; and
    • “the offeror and counterparty seller (including any of their respective affiliates or other persons acting in concert with the offeror or counterparty seller on a similar basis) does not retain any interest in or control over any of the commodity purchased on margin, leverage, or other financing arrangement at the expiration of 28 days from the date of the transaction.”

    Comments on the proposed regulation must be received on or before March 20, 2018.

    In October, the CFTC’s LabCFTC released “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies,” which discusses potential use-cases for virtual currencies, outlines the agency’s role and oversight of virtual currencies, and highlights the risks associated with virtual currencies. The CFTC also launched its own webpage with virtual currency resources and a customer advisory warning of the risks of virtual currency trading.

    Fintech Virtual Currency CFTC Federal Register Bitcoin

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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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  • CFTC Issues Primer on Virtual Currencies, Claims Certain Virtual Tokens Fall Under Its Oversight

    Securities

    On October 17, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced the release of “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies” (Primer) issued by its LabCFTC division. As previously discussed in Infobytes, the LabCFTC initiative rolled out in May of this year to engage innovators in the financial technology industry to promote responsible fintech innovation within regulated CFTC markets. In this Primer—a first in a series—the CFTC discusses potential use-cases for virtual currencies and outlines the agency’s role and oversight of virtual currencies. The Primer also highlights the risks associated with virtual currencies, such as (i) the susceptibility of “digital wallets” to cybersecurity hacks; (ii) inadequate safeguards and other customer protection related systems on virtual currency exchanges; and (iii) the susceptibility of virtual currencies to Ponzi schemes and other types of frauds.

    The CFTC noted that there’s no inconsistency between the SEC’s analysis that Initial Coin Offerings or Token Sales may be subject to federal securities law (see previous InfoBytes coverage here) and CFTC’s determination that virtual currencies are commodities and virtual tokens “may be commodities or derivatives contracts, depending on the particular facts and circumstances.” Last month, as discussed in InfoBytes, the CFTC also filed its first-ever antifraud enforcement action for activities involving Bitcoin investment solicitations.

    Securities Fintech Agency Rule-Making & Guidance CFTC Digital Commerce Initial Coin Offerings Virtual Currency Bitcoin SEC

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  • Russia Weighs Risks of Cryptocurrencies; President Putin Seeks Regulations

    Fintech

    On October 10, the First Deputy Governor of Russia’s Central Bank reportedly announced plans to block websites selling bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency. Citing unreasonably high risks and the need to protect investors from the “dubious” currencies, the Central Bank’s concerns were echoed by President Vladimir Putin who reportedly stressed that risks associated with the use of cryptocurrencies include money laundering, tax evasion and funding for terrorism. However, President Putin issued a call for cryptocurrency regulation rather than a broad ban and stressed the need to utilize international experience when establishing rules.

    Last September, as previously reported in InfoBytes, several Chinese regulators reportedly announced plans to ban the commercial trading of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in the country.

    Fintech Bitcoin Cryptocurrency International Virtual Currency

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  • CFTC Files Anti-Fraud Enforcement Action Against New York-Based Corporation Concerning Bitcoin Investments

    Courts

    On September 21, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a New York-based corporation and its CEO (defendants) for allegedly engaging in fraudulent acts and practices in violation of the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC Regulations by issuing false account statements in connection with Bitcoin investment solicitations. According to the complaint, the “Bitcoin Ponzi scheme” solicited more than $600,000 from approximately 80 customers to be placed in a pooled fund, executed by the defendants’ computer program called “Jigsaw,” which traded the virtual currency. The CFTC alleges that defendants’ strategy was fake and the “purported performance reports” were false in that they created the appearance of positive Bitcoin trading increases, but the gains were “illusory.” The CFTC further asserts that the “payouts of supposed profits to [pool participants] in actuality consisted of other customers’ misappropriated funds.” In addition, the CFTC alleges that defendants orchestrated a “fake computer ‘hack’” to conceal the scheme. The suit seeks, among other things, disgorgement of profits, civil monetary penalties, restitution, and a ban on commodities trading for the defendants.

    Courts Bitcoin Litigation Enforcement Virtual Currency Fraud CFTC

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