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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

FinCEN prohibits engagement with virtual currency exchange connected to Russian finance

Financial Crimes Of Interest to Non-US Persons FinCEN Department of Treasury DOJ Digital Assets Anti-Money Laundering Russia Enforcement Virtual Currency Illicit Finance Peer-to-Peer

Financial Crimes

On January 18, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued its first order pursuant to section 9714(a) of the Combating Russian Money Laundering Act to identify a Hong Kong-registered global virtual currency exchange operating outside of the U.S. as a “primary money laundering concern” in connection with Russian illicit finance. FinCEN announced that the virtual currency exchange offers exchange and peer-to-peer services and “plays a critical role in laundering Convertible Virtual Currency (CVC) by facilitating illicit transactions for ransomware actors operating in Russia.” A FinCEN investigation revealed that the virtual currency exchange facilitated deposits and funds transfers to Russia-affiliated ransomware groups or affiliates, as well as transactions with Russia-connected darknet markets, one of which is currently sanctioned and subject to enforcement actions that have shuttered its operations. The investigation also found that the virtual currency exchange failed to meaningfully implement steps to identify and disrupt the illicit use and abuse of its services, and lacked adequate policies, procedures, or internal controls to combat money laundering and illicit finance.

Recognizing that the virtual currency exchange “poses a global threat by allowing Russian cybercriminals and ransomware actors to launder the proceeds of their theft,” FinCEN acting Director Himamauli Das emphasized that “[a]s criminals and criminal facilitators evolve, so too does our ability to disrupt these networks.” He warned that FinCEN will continue to leverage the full range of its authorities to prohibit these institutions from gaining access to and using the U.S. financial system to support Russian illicit finance. Effective February 1, covered financial institutions are prohibited from engaging in the transmittal of funds from or to the virtual currency exchange, or from or to any account or CVC address administered by or on behalf of the virtual currency exchange. Frequently asked questions on the action are available here.

Concurrently, the DOJ announced that the founder and majority owner of the virtual currency exchange was arrested for his alleged involvement in the transmission of illicit funds. Charged with conducting an unlicensed money transmitting business and processing more than $700 million of illicit funds, the DOJ said the individual allegedly “knowingly allowed [the virtual currency exchange] to become a perceived safe haven for funds used for and resulting from a variety of criminal activities,” and was aware that the virtual currency exchange’s accounts “were rife with illicit activity and that many of its users were registered under others’ identities.” While the virtual currency exchange claimed it did not accept users from the U.S., it allegedly conducted substantial business with U.S.-based customers and advised users that they could transfer funds from U.S. financial institutions. 

Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo issued a statement following the announcement, noting that the action “is a unique step that has only been taken a handful of times in Treasury’s history for some of the most egregious money laundering cases, and is the first of its kind specifically under new authorities to combat Russian illicit finance.” He reiterated that the action “sends a clear message that we are prepared to take action against any financial institution—including virtual asset service providers—with lax controls against money laundering, terrorist financing, or other illicit finance.”