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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

OFAC reaches $7.6 million settlement with online digital-asset trading platform

Financial Crimes Of Interest to Non-US Persons OFAC Digital Assets Department of Treasury Enforcement OFAC Sanctions OFAC Designations Settlement

Financial Crimes

On May 1, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a roughly $7.6 million settlement with a Massachusetts-based online trading and settlement platform to resolve potential civil liability stemming from allegations that the platform allowed customers in sanctioned jurisdictions to engage in digital asset-related transactions. According to OFAC’s web notice, between January 2014 and November 2019, the platform allegedly permitted customers to make more than $15.3 million in trades, deposits, and withdrawals, despite having reason to know that the customers’ locations—based on both Know Your Customer (KYC) information and internet protocol address data—were in jurisdictions subject to comprehensive OFAC sanctions. OFAC noted that although the platform implemented a sanctions compliance program to screen new customers, it did not retroactively screen existing customers, thus allowing these customers to continue to conduct trading activity. While the platform made efforts to identify and restrict accounts with a nexus to certain sanctioned jurisdictions, compliance deficiencies resulted in the platform processing 65,942 online digital asset-related transactions for 232 customers apparently located predominantly in Crimea, but also in Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.

In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC considered, among other things, that the platform failed to exercise due caution or care for its sanctions compliance obligations and had reason to know that certain customers were located in sanctioned jurisdictions. Additionally, the settlement amount reflects that the platform did not voluntarily disclose the apparent violations. OFAC also considered several mitigating factors, including that: (i) the platform was a small start-up when most of the apparent violations occurred; (ii) the platform has not received a penalty notice from OFAC in the preceding five years; (iii) the platform cooperated with OFAC during the investigation and undertook numerous remedial measures; and (iv) the volume of apparent violations represented a very small percentage of the total volume of transactions conducted on the platform annually.

Providing context for the settlement, OFAC said the “action highlights that online digital asset companies—like all financial service providers— are responsible for ensuring that they do not engage in transactions prohibited by OFAC sanctions, such as providing services to persons in comprehensively sanctioned jurisdictions. To mitigate such risks, online digital asset companies should develop a tailored, risk-based sanctions compliance program.”