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SEC settles cryptocurrency fraud case for $10.1 million
On August 29, the SEC announced it had settled with a cryptocurrency company and its two founders to resolve allegations that the company defrauded investors and operated an unregistered exchange. The SEC’s complaint alleges that the defendants raised more than $13 million from investors through the sale of digital tokens without registering the offerings with the SEC. According to the complaint, the defendants misrepresented that purchasers of digital tokens would receive stock in the company, as well as obtain access to a global marketplace attracting millions of consumers, despite the fact that the latter did not exist. This led to investors allegedly losing more than two-thirds of their investments in the company, the SEC claims. The company also allegedly operated an illegal, unregistered national security exchange offering trading in a single security. The SEC’s press release states that, while the defendants neither admit nor deny the allegations, the company will pay disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and a civil penalty of approximately $8.4 million, while the two founders will each pay more than $850,000.
District Court allows case exploring whether cryptocurrency acquisitions are “cash-like” to proceed
On August 1, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York allowed breach of contract and clear and conspicuous disclosure claims brought by a proposed class of consumers against a national bank to proceed, finding that ambiguity exists over whether credit card cryptocurrency purchases are “cash-like transactions.” The plaintiffs claimed that the bank breached their cardholder agreements when it changed the classification of cryptocurrency acquisitions from “purchases” to “cash advances” between January 23 and February 2, 2018. Plaintiffs contended that this change subjected cardholders to higher interest rates and transaction fees in violation of their cardholder agreements. Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that the bank’s failure to clearly and conspicuously disclose the different types of transactions and varying rates, as well as its failure to provide advance notice of significant changes in its account terms and accurate disclosures in periodic account statements, violated TILA and Regulation Z.
The bank countered that no breach of contract occurred because cryptocurrency acquisitions are “cash-like transactions” that, under the cardholder agreement, are properly classified as cash advances. Specifically, the bank stated that because cryptocurrency can be a “medium of exchange, a measure of value, or a means of payment” under the definition of “cash,” it is therefore “cash-like.”
The court concluded that the plaintiffs offered a reasonable argument that purchases of cryptocurrency did not constitute cash advances. Plaintiffs argued that the contractual term “cash-like”—which was used in the cardholder agreement to describe a cash advance—referred only to financial instruments formally tied to physical, government-issued “fiat” currency, such as checks, money orders, and wire transfers. “Because, as plaintiffs plausibly allege, cryptocurrency does not imbue its holder with a legal right to any government-issued currency, acquisitions of cryptocurrency could not be classified as a cash-like transaction,” the court stated. As such, “[b]ecause plaintiffs have identified a reasonable interpretation of ‘cash-like transactions’ that would exclude purchases of cryptocurrency, the breach of contract claim survives the motion to dismiss.” The court also allowed plaintiffs’ “clear and conspicuous” disclosure claim under TILA to survive because the contract was not clear that purchases of cryptocurrency would result in cash advance fees. However, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ remaining TILA claims, finding that (i) the bank did not change the contract terms themselves, but rather their application; and (ii) the periodic account statements did not inaccurately convey what the plaintiffs owed to the bank for those particular periods of time.
SEC, FINRA address digital asset securities compliance requirements
On July 8, the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued a joint statement in response to compliance questions received from broker-dealer participants who handle digital asset securities. While recognizing that the application of federal securities law and FINRA rules to digital asset securities, as well as related innovative technologies, “raise novel and complex regulatory and compliance questions and challenges,” the joint statement encourages “reasonably practicable” efforts to address these issues. Among other things, the guidance emphasizes that broker-dealer participants who try to maintain custody of clients’ digital asset securities must comply with the SEC’s Customer Protection Rule to safeguard customers’ assets and prevent investor loss or harm. In situations involving noncustodial digital asset securities activities, relevant laws, rules, and requirements must also be followed, even if these activities generally do not raise the same level of concern. The SEC and FINRA also acknowledge that compliance with these rules may be challenging as technological enhancements and situations unique to digital asset securities continue to develop, and emphasize that they will continue to engage with broker-dealer participants as the marketplace evolves.
FATF establishes binding measures on virtual currency regulation
On June 21, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued a statement confirming that FATF members agreed to regulate and supervise virtual asset financial activities and related service providers. On the same day, FATF issued a statement noting that it “adopted and issued an Interpretive Note to Recommendation 15 on New Technologies (INR. 15) that further clarifies the FATF’s previous amendments to the international Standards relating to virtual assets and describes how countries and obliged entities must comply with the relevant FATF Recommendations to prevent the misuse of virtual assets for money laundering and terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2018, FATF urged all countries to take measures to prevent virtual assets and cryptocurrencies from being used to finance crime and terrorism and updated The FATF Recommendations to add new definitions for “virtual assets” and “virtual asset service providers” and to clarify how the recommendations apply to financial activities involving virtual assets and cryptocurrencies.
According to FATF announcement, INR. 15 establishes “binding measures,” which require countries to, among other things, (i) assess and mitigate risks associated with virtual asset activities and service providers; (ii) license or register service providers and subject them to supervision; (iii) implement sanctions and other enforcement measures when service providers fail to comply with an anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) obligation; and (iv) ensure that service providers implement the full range of AML/CFT preventive measures under the FATF Recommendations, including customer due diligence, record-keeping, suspicious transaction reporting, and screening all transactions for compliance with targeted financial sanctions.
New York charges virtual currency operators with fraud
On April 25, the New York Attorney General announced that operators of a virtual currency trading platform and “tether” virtual currency issuer, along with their affiliated entities, are enjoined from engaging in activities that may have defrauded investors trading in cryptocurrency. The AG’s investigation found that the operators allegedly “engaged in a cover-up to hide the apparent loss of $850 million dollars of co-mingled client and corporate funds.” Under the terms of the court order, the operators and companies must, among other things, (i) immediately end the further dissipation of U.S. dollar assets that back “tether” tokens; (ii) are prohibited from making any distributions to executives, employees, or agents, investors, or associates from “funds that that have been loaned, extended, or pledged, or otherwise taken from the U.S. dollar reserves held by the operator”; and (iii) are prohibited from destroying or deleting potentially relevant documents and communications.
Colorado provides certain digital tokens licensing exemptions
On March 6, the Colorado Governor signed SB 19-23, which provides limited exemptions from the state’s securities registration and licensing requirements for persons dealing in certain types of digital tokens. The “Colorado Digital Token Act” (the Act) provides issuer exemptions for digital tokens sold for a “consumptive purpose”—the token is used in exchange for a good, service, or content—rather than a “speculative or investment purpose.” Specifically, the Act attempts to reduce regulatory uncertainty by providing a safe harbor from state securities laws for persons that meet the specified conditions. Subject to the filing of a referendum petition, the Act will take effect August 2.
Wyoming is second state to create fintech sandbox
On February 19, the Wyoming Governor signed HB 57, which creates a fintech sandbox program in the state for companies to test innovative financial products and services. Wyoming is the second state to introduce a regulatory sandbox program, following Arizona’s sandbox introduction last March. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) Under the “Financial Technology Sandbox Act” (the Act), the state’s sandbox will be open to innovative financial products and services, including those focused on blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and will allow testing of these products for up to two years with the possibility of an additional 12 month extension before requiring participants to apply for formal licensure. Additionally, under certain conditions, the Act—which grants various supervisory and enforcement power to the state banking commissioner and the secretary of state, including revocation and suspension rights—will authorize (i) limited waivers of specified statutes or rules, and (ii) reciprocity agreements with other regulators. The Act takes effect January 1, 2020.
FINRA provides 2019 risk monitoring and examination guidance
On January 22, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued new guidance on areas member firms should consider when seeking to improve their compliance, supervisory, and risk management programs. The 2019 FINRA Risk Monitoring and Examination Priorities Letter (2019 Priorities Letter) examines both new priorities as well as areas of ongoing concern, including the adequacy of firms’ cybersecurity programs. FINRA notes, however, that the 2019 Priorities Letter does not repeat topics previously addressed in prior letters, and advises member firms that it will continue to review ongoing obligations for compliance. Topics FINRA plans to focus on in the coming year include:
- Firms’ use of regulatory technology to help compliance efforts become “more efficient, effective, and risk-based.” FINRA will work with firms to understand risks and concerns related to supervision and governance systems, third party vendor management, and safeguarding customer data;
- Supervision of digital assets, including coordinating with the SEC to review how firms determine whether a given digital asset is a security and whether firms are implementing adequate controls and supervisions related to digital assets, such as complying with anti-money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act rules and regulations;
- Assessment of firms’ compliance with FinCEN’s Customer Due Diligence rule, which requires firms to identify beneficial owners of legal entity customers (as previously covered by InfoBytes here); and
- Financial risks, including credit risks, funding and liquidity planning.
New York governor creates task force to study digital currency industry
On December 21, the New York governor signed A08783, which creates a digital currency task force to conduct a comprehensive review related to the regulation of cryptocurrencies in the state. The act requires the task force to issue a report by December 15, 2020, with recommendations to “increase transparency and security, enhance consumer protections, and to address the long-term impact related to the use of cryptocurrency.” The report will also contain a review of laws and regulations on digital currency, including those used by other states, the federal government, and foreign countries.
Court holds SEC has not proven pre-ICO cryptocurrency is a “security”
On November 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied the SEC’s motion for a preliminary injunction against a cryptocurrency company, concluding the agency failed show the currency tokens were “securities” as defined under federal securities laws. According to the order, the SEC filed a complaint against the company in October alleging it falsely claimed its initial coin offering (ICO) was registered and approved by the SEC and other regulators, including using the agency’s seal in marketing materials. At the time of the filing, the SEC claimed the company had already raised more than $2.5 million in pre-ICO sales. The SEC moved for a preliminary injunction to freeze the company’s assets and prevent the company’s owner from buying or selling securities and other digital currency during the pendency of the case. Upon review, the court noted the SEC must establish the company previously violated federal securities laws and there is a reasonable likelihood that it will happen again. The SEC argued the allegedly fraudulent marketing materials used to raise money from 32 “test investors” violated federal securities laws, while the company argued the investors did not have an expectation to receive profits as they were working with the company on the exchange’s functionality and therefore, the currency tokens were not “securities.” The court denied the SEC’s motion, concluding that it could not determine whether the tokens were “securities” under federal law without full discovery as there were disputed issues of material facts, including what the test investors relied on in terms of marketing materials before they purchased the cryptocurrency tokens.