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New York AG sues crypto trading platform for failing to register
On February 22, the New York attorney general filed a petition in state court against a virtual currency trading platform (respondent) for allegedly failing to register as a securities and commodities broker-dealer and falsely representing itself as a cryptocurrency exchange. The respondent’s website and mobile application enable investors to buy and sell cryptocurrency, including certain popular virtual currencies that are allegedly securities and commodities. According to the AG, securities and commodities brokers are required to register with the state, which the respondent allegedly failed to do. The AG further maintained that the respondent claimed to be an exchange but failed to appropriately register with the SEC as a national securities exchange or be designated by the CFTC as required under New York law. Nor did the respondent comply with a subpoena requesting additional information about its crypto-asset trading activities in the state, the AG said. The state seeks a court order (i) preventing the respondent from misrepresenting that it is an exchange; (ii) banning the respondent from operating in the state; and (iii) directing the respondent to undertake measures to prevent access to its mobile application, website, and services from within New York.
CFTC approves final interpretative guidance on “actual delivery” in virtual currency transactions
On March 24, the CFTC approved final interpretive guidance concerning the term “actual delivery” in the context of retail virtual currency transactions. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFTC reaffirmed its belief that virtual currencies are commodities, and thus certain transactions involving these types of currencies are subject to CFTC oversight. In order to demonstrate the “actual delivery” of virtual currency in connection with retail commodity transactions, the final interpretive guidance sets forth two primary factors that market participants must demonstrate:
- A customer has (i) the ability to secure “possession and control of the entire quantity of the commodity, whether it was purchased on margin, by using leverage, or any other financing arrangement”; and (ii) “the ability to use the entire quantity of the commodity freely in commerce (away from any particular execution venue) no later than 28 days from the date of the transaction and at all times thereafter”; 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) do not retain any interest in, legal right, 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.”
CFTC Chairman Heath P. Tarbert stated that he anticipates a 90-day period before the CFTC begins initiating enforcement actions related to the final interpretive guidance that may not have been plainly evident in prior guidance, enforcement actions, and case law.
Agencies issue BSA compliance reminder on digital assets
On October 11, the SEC, Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued a joint statement to remind persons who engage in digital asset activities or handle cryptocurrency transactions of their anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). According to the agencies, AML/CFT obligations apply to entities defined as “financial institutions” under the Bank Secrecy Act, which include “futures commission merchants and introducing brokers obligated to register with the CFTC, money services businesses (MSB) as defined by FinCEN, and broker-dealers and mutual funds obligated to register with the SEC.” The obligations include, among other things, (i) establishing and implementing an effective AML program; and (ii) complying with recordkeeping and reporting requirements such as suspicious activity reporting (SARs).
The agencies note that persons who engage in digital asset-related activities may have AML/CFT obligations regardless of the “label or terminology used to describe a digital asset or a person engaging in or providing financial activities or services involving a digital asset.” According to the agencies, the facts and circumstances underlying the asset or service, “including its economic reality and use,” is what determines how the asset is categorized, the applicable regulatory treatment, and whether the persons involved are financial institution under the BSA.
Additionally, FinCEN reminded financial institutions of its supervisory and enforcement authority to “ensure the effectiveness of the AML/CFT regime,” emphasizing that persons who provide money transmission services are MSBs subject to FinCEN regulation. FinCEN also referred to its May 2019 interpretive guidance, which consolidated and clarified current FinCEN regulations, guidance, and administrative rulings related to money transmissions involving virtual currency. (Previous InfoBytes coverage here.)
CFTC charges U.K. company with fraudulent bitcoin scheme
On June 18, the CFTC announced it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a United Kingdom-based bitcoin trading and investment company and its principal (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly fraudulently obtaining and misappropriating almost 23,000 bitcoin from more than 1,000 customers. The CFTC alleges the defendants violated the Commodity Exchange Act by fraudulently soliciting customers to purchase bitcoin with cash and then deposit the bitcoin in accounts controlled by the defendants. The CFTC alleges that the defendants misrepresented that they “employed expert virtual currency traders who earned guaranteed daily trading profits on customers’ Bitcoin deposits.” Additionally, the CFTC alleges the defendants also fabricated weekly trade reports and “manufactured an aura of profitability” by depositing new customer bitcoin purchases to other customer accounts. The scheme, according to the CFTC, obtained almost 23,000 bitcoins “from more than 1,000 members of the public,” “which reached valuation of at least $147 million.” The CFTC is seeking civil monetary penalties, restitution, rescission, disgorgement, trading and registration bans, and injunctive relief against further violations of the federal commodity laws.
District Court concludes a small virtual currency is a “commodity” under the Commodities Exchange Act
On September 26, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied a virtual currency trading company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that smaller virtual currencies are commodities that may be regulated by the CFTC. In January, the CFTC bought an action alleging the company violated the Commodities Exchange Act (CEA) and CFTC Regulation 180.1(a) by making false or misleading statements and omitting material facts when offering the sale of their company’s virtual currency. For example, the complaint alleges that the company falsely stated that its virtual currency was backed by gold, could be used anywhere Mastercard was accepted, and was being actively traded on several currency exchanges. Moreover, while consumers who purchased the virtual currency could view their accounts, they were unable to trade it or withdraw funds from their accounts with the company. The company moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the conduct did not involve a “commodity,” specifically one that underlies a futures contract, under the CEA. In denying the motion to dismiss, the court determined that Congress intended for the CEA to cover a certain “class” of items and specific items within that class are then “dealt in.” Because the company offered a type of “virtual currency” and it is “undisputed that there is futures trading in virtual currencies (specifically involving Bitcoin),” the court held that the CFTC sufficiently alleged the company’s product is a “commodity” under the CEA. The court also rejected the company’s other arguments, determining Regulation 180.1(a) was meant to combat the fraud alleged by the CFTC, notwithstanding its use of the term “market manipulation,” and the CFTC adequately pleaded the fraudulent claim under the regulation.
CFTC wins $1.1 million judgment in cryptocurrency fraud action
On August 23, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York entered final judgment in favor of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in its suit against a cryptocurrency trading advice company and its owner (defendants) for allegedly misappropriating investor money through a cryptocurrency trading scam. As previously covered by InfoBytes in March, the court granted the CFTC’s request for a preliminary injunction, holding that the CFTC has the authority to regulate virtual currency as a “commodity” within the meaning of the Commodity Exchange Act and that the CFTC has jurisdiction to pursue fraudulent activities involving virtual currency even if the fraud does not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts. The final judgment orders the defendants to pay over $1.1 million in restitution and civil money penalties and permanently enjoins them from engaging in future activities related to commodity interests and virtual currencies.
FinCEN director discusses approach to virtual currency and emerging technology
On August 9, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (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.
CFTC, NASAA enter cryptocurrency, fraud information sharing partnership; CFTC releases virtual currency derivative guidance
On May 21, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced it had signed a mutual cooperation agreement with the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) to increase cooperation and information sharing on cryptocurrencies and other potential market fraud. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) is designed to “assist participants in enforcing the Commodity Exchange Act, which state securities regulators and state attorneys general are statutorily authorized to do alongside the CFTC,” leading to the possibility of additional enforcement actions brought under other areas of law. In order to receive the benefits—including investigative leads, whistleblower tips, complaints, and referrals provided to NASAA members by the CFTC—individual jurisdictions will be required to sign the MOU.
The same day, the CFTC’s Division of Market Oversight and Division of Clearing and Risk (DCR) issued a joint staff advisory providing guidance on several enhancements to which CFTC-registered exchanges and clearinghouses should adhere when listing derivatives contracts based on virtual currencies. The advisory addresses the following five key areas for market participants: (i) “[e]nhanced market surveillance”; (ii) “[c]lose coordination with CFTC staff’; (iii) “[l]arge trader reporting”; (iv) “[o]utreach to member and market participants”; and (v) “Derivatives Clearing Organization risk management and governance.” According to the DCR director, the information provided is intended in part, “to aid market participants in their efforts to design risk management programs that address the new risks imposed by virtual currency products . . . [and] to help ensure that market participants follow appropriate governance processes with respect to the launch of these products.”
CFTC stresses importance of coordinating regulatory requirements with the SEC
On May 2, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) reiterated the importance of coordinating and harmonizing regulatory requirements with the SEC. In prepared remarks issued before FIA’s 40th Annual Law and Compliance Conference, CFTC Commissioner Brian Quintenz stated that its internal cryptocurrency enforcement task force will work in cooperation with its SEC counterparts on cases involving virtual currency. “Both agencies’ Divisions of Enforcement have demonstrated their commitment to work closely to prosecute fraud and ensure that differences in product nomenclature do not enable bad actors to slip through jurisdictional cracks,” Quintenz said. The agencies plan to update their existing 10-year-old memorandum of understanding to facilitate the sharing of information related to, among other things, swaps and security-based swaps data, fintech developments, and market events.
District Court recognizes CFTC authority to regulate virtual currency as commodities
On March 6, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted the CFTC’s request for preliminary injunction against defendants alleged to have misappropriated investor money through a cryptocurrency trading scam, holding that the CFTC has the authority to regulate virtual currency as commodities. The decision additionally defined virtual currency as a “commodity” within the meaning of the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) and gave the CFTC jurisdiction to pursue fraudulent activities involving virtual currency even if the fraud does not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts. However, the court noted that the “jurisdictional authority of CFTC to regulate virtual currencies as commodities does not preclude other agencies from exercising their regulatory power when virtual currencies function differently than derivative commodities.” Under the terms of the order, the defendants are restrained and enjoined until further order of the court from participating in fraudulent behavior related to the swap or sale of any commodity, and must, among other things, provide the CFTC with access to business records and a written account of financial documents.
Find continuing InfoBytes coverage on virtual currency oversight here.