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On July 19, the SEC announced that it had obtained a temporary restraining order and asset freeze to halt an ongoing fraud offering by a Las Vegas-based company and two individual defendants, including a recidivist, (collectively, “defendants”) that allegedly raised more than $12 million from nearly 300 retail investors. According to the complaint, the defendants violated several provisions of securities laws by allegedly promising investors that their money would be invested in securities, bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies based on recommendations made by an “[a]rtificial intelligence supercomputer,” which allegedly “consistently generate[d] enormous returns” and allowed the defendants to guarantee fixed returns of 20-30 percent annually with compounding interest. However, the SEC alleged that over 90 percent of the defendants’ funds came from investors, and that the defendants did not use these funds for the stated purposes. Rather, defendants transferred millions of dollars to one of the individual defendant’s personal bank accounts, paid millions of dollars to promoters who led investors to the defendants, and made “Ponzi-like” payments to other investors. The complaint seeks permanent injunctions, disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and civil penalties.
On July 19, the New Jersey Bureau of Securities (Bureau) announced a cease and desist order against a financial services company for allegedly selling unregistered securities in the form of interest-earning cryptocurrency accounts and failing to explain to investors that the accounts were not licensed in New Jersey. According to the order, the company has been funding its lending operations and proprietary trading business since 2019 by selling interest-bearing cryptocurrency accounts that are not protected by or registered with any federal or state securities regulator. The order notes that the company “held the equivalent of $14.7 billion from the sale of these unregistered securities in violation of the Securities Law.” In addition, the order, which become effective July 22, requires the company to stop selling any unregistered security or violating any securities law. According to the Bureau, the recent action “comes amid rising concerns over the proliferation of decentralized finance platforms like [the company] that seek to reinvent traditional financial systems such as banks and brokerages for digital asset investors,” and that “[u]nlike traditional, regulated banks and brokerage firms, however, investors’ losses are not insured against or protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or Securities Investor Protection Corporation.”
Recently, California’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) released a new opinion letter covering aspects of the California Money Transmission Act (MTA) related to certain cryptocurrency activities. According to the letter, the requesting company intends to provide an internet-enabled peer-to-peer (P2P) marketplace for the purchase and sale of certain decentralized digital currencies. The P2P marketplace will enable buyers and sellers of the specified cryptocurrency “to connect and arrange for the direct settlement of purchases and sales between such users” through a variety of means, such as bank transfers, gift cards, money transmission, debit card, credit card, among others. Additionally, the company’s P2P marketplace will allow customers to (i) buy goods or services with the specified cryptocurrency from unaffiliated, third-party online retailers who accept that cryptocurrency as a form of payment; (ii) exchange their cryptocurrency for the rights to a US dollar-backed stablecoin; and (iii) remit funds in different currencies, including foreign currency. The company emphasized that it will “not collect, store, or transmit any digital or fiat currency” in any of its four proposed products. DFPI concluded that the Delaware company’s proposed services are not subject to licensing under the MTA, explaining that the sale and purchase of cryptocurrency directly between two parties, in which the company does not facilitate the exchange of the fiat currency or the cryptocurrency, does not meet the definition of money transmission. Likewise, the company’s other proposed products do not constitute money transmission either. DFPI reminded the company, however, that its determination is limited to the facts as presented and that at any time DFPI may determine that the activities are subject to regulatory supervision. Moreover, the letter does not relieve the company from any FinCEN or federal agency obligations.
On July 8, FINRA issued Regulatory Notice 21-25, reminding firms to notify their FINRA risk-monitoring analysts if they currently engage in, or plan to engage in, activities regarding digital assets. The notice discusses the types of activities of interest to FINRA, which include, among other things: (i) transactions in digital assets; (ii) pooled funds investing in digital assets; (iii) derivatives associated with digital assets; (iv) engagement in an initial or secondary offering of digital assets; (v) participation in cryptocurrencies and other virtual coins and tokens; (vi) acceptance or mining of cryptocurrency; and (vii) “recording cryptocurrencies and other virtual coins and tokens using distributed ledger technology or any other use of blockchain technology.” The notice encourages firms to promptly notify their risk monitoring analyst in writing on an ongoing basis.
On June 24, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) honored the recipients of its 2021 Law Enforcement Awards Program, which recognizes agencies that use Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) data provided by financial institutions to successfully pursue and prosecute criminal investigations. The awards were presented in eight different categories related to: (i) Covid-19 fraud; (ii) cyber threats; (iii) transnational organized crime; (iv) transnational security threats; (v) state and local law enforcement; (vi) third-party money launderers; (vii) a suspicious activity review team; and (viii) significant fraud. Awards work included investigation into Paycheck Protection Program fraud that resulted in the seizure of case over $3 million, seizure of over $47 million dollars in narcotics proceeds, and seizure of 300 cryptocurrency accounts, among other work. FinCEN acting Director Michael Mosier stated that “[t]he law enforcement work that we recognize today highlights both the importance of an effective partnership between FinCEN, financial institutions, and our law enforcement agencies, and the value of BSA reporting in protecting the American people from fraud, cybercrime, and the illicit finance threats confronting our nation.”
On May 25, the Nebraska governor approved LB 649, the Nebraska Financial Innovation Act, which creates a bank charter for companies that hold cryptocurrencies. The new act defines “digital asset depository institutions” as banks or financial institutions that hold certain digital assets, and will allow existing state-chartered banks to establish areas focused on cryptocurrency services. New businesses will also be able to gain a state banking charter as digital asset depositories. The act provides, among other things, that “at all times, a digital asset depository shall maintain unencumbered liquid assets denominated in United States dollars valued at not less than one hundred percent of the digital assets in custody” and that “compliance with federal and state laws, including, but not limited to, know-your-customer and anti-money-laundering rules and the federal Bank Secrecy Act, is critical to ensuring the future growth and reputation of the blockchain and technology industries as a whole.”
On May 20, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell released a video message outlining the potential use of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) in the U.S. payment system. Powell discussed how “the rise of distributed ledger technology, which offers a new approach to recording ownership of assets, has allowed for the creation of a range of new financial products and services—including cryptocurrencies,” which may carry potential risks to those users and to the broader financial system. Powell highlighted that the Fed is contemplating whether and how a U.S. CBDC would impact the domestic payments system, emphasizing that CBDCs “could serve as a complement to, and not a replacement of, cash and current private-sector digital forms of the dollar.” Powell also noted that, as part of the Fed’s ongoing efforts in exploring the potential benefits and risks of CBDCs from a variety of angles, the Fed will begin broader consideration of the creation of a U.S. CBDC by issuing a discussion paper and requesting public comment on benefits and risks. Powell stated he expects the Fed to play a leading role in developing international standards for CBDCs by “engaging actively with central banks in other jurisdictions as well as regulators and supervisors here in the United States throughout that process.”
On April 28, the DOJ announced the arrest of a dual Russian-Swedish national on criminal charges related to his alleged operation of a bitcoin money laundering service on the darknet. The DOJ referred to the individual’s money-laundering service as the “longest-running cryptocurrency ‘mixer,’” stating that it moved over 1.2 million bitcoin valued at approximately $335 million at the time of transactions over the course of 10 years. According to the DOJ, the majority of the cryptocurrency came from darknet marketplaces tied to illegal narcotics, computer fraud, and abuse activities. The individual is charged with (i) money laundering; (ii) operating an unlicensed money transmitting business; and (iii) money transmission without obtaining a license in the District of Columbia.
On April 13, SEC Commissioner Hester M. Pierce released an updated version of her proposal for a three-year safe harbor rule applicable to companies developing digital assets and networks. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last year Pierce suggested that not only would the rule provide regulatory flexibility “that allows innovation to flourish,” but it would also protect investors by “requiring disclosures tailored to their needs” while still maintaining anti-fraud safeguards, allowing investors to participate in token networks of their choice. The three-year grace period for qualifying companies, Pierce suggested, would allow time for the development of decentralized or functional networks, adding that at the end of the three years, a successful network’s tokens would not be regulated as securities.
The updates to the proposal reflect feedback from the cryptocurrency community, securities lawyers, and the pubic, and include, among other things:
- A requirement for companies to provide semi-annual updates to the plan of development disclosure and a block explorer;
- An exit report requirement, which would include either (i) an outside counsel analysis explaining why the network is decentralized or functional; or (ii) an announcement that the company will register the tokens under the Securities Exchange Act; and
- Enhancements to the exit report requirement to address what the outside counsel’s analysis should address when explaining why a network is decentralized.
The public is encouraged to provide feedback on the updated proposal.
On March 19, the CFTC announced a $6.5 million settlement with a California-based digital asset company to resolve allegations of false, misleading, or inaccurate reporting concerning its digital asset transactions that violated the Commodity Exchange Act or CFTC regulations. According to the CFTC, from January 2015 to September 2018, the company allegedly operated at least two trading programs that generated orders that, at times, matched each other. The CFTC claimed, among other things, that the transactional information provided on the company’s website and given to reporting services resulted “in a perceived volume and level of liquidity of digital assets. . .that was false, misleading or inaccurate.” Additionally, the CFTC alleged that the company was vicariously liable for a former employee’s use of “a manipulative or deceptive device” to intentionally place buy and sell orders that matched each other, creating a misleading appearance of interest in certain cryptocurrencies. The company did not admit or deny the CFTC’s findings and agreed to pay a $6.5 million civil penalty.
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to provide “Fair lending update” at the Colorado Mortgage Lenders Association Operational and Compliance Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Justice for all: Achieving racial equity through fair lending” at CBA Live
- Warren W. Traiger to discuss “On the horizon for CRA modernization” at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “State law regulatory and enforcement trends” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Government investigations, and compliance 2021 trends” at the Corporate Counsel Women of Color Career Strategies Conference
- Max Bonici to discuss “BSA/AML trends: What to expect with the implementation of the AML Act of 2020” at the American Bar Association Banking Law Fall Meeting
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss “Modifications and exiting forbearance” at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fintech trends” at the BIHC Network Elevating Black Excellence Regional Summit
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute