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On June 4, the SEC announced it had filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a tech company issuer for allegedly raising approximately $100 million through an unregistered initial coin offering. According to the complaint, the issuer failed to provide required disclosures to investors and did not register the offer or sale of its digital tokens with the SEC, as required by Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933. The SEC contends that the issuer marketed the digital tokens as an investment opportunity and told investors that they could earn future profits from the issuer’s efforts to create, develop, and support a digital “ecosystem.” According to the SEC, “[f]uture profits based on the efforts of others is a hallmark of a securities offering that must comply with the federal securities laws.” The SEC’s suit seeks a permanent injunction, disgorgement of profits plus interest, and a civil penalty.
On April 3, the SEC issued a no-action letter to a Delaware-based airline chartering services company not recommending enforcement action for offering and selling “tokens” without registration under the SEC Act. According to the letter, the SEC relied upon the company’s counsel’s opinion, which assured that consumers are purchasing the tokens solely for prepaid “air charter services and not for investment purposes or with an expectation to earn a profit,” in determining that the “tokens” were not securities. Additionally, the SEC’s relief considered numerous other factors such as: (i) the platform for conducting the sale of the tokens will “be fully developed and operational” at the time any tokens are sold and funds derived from token sales will not be used to develop the platform; (ii) consumers will be able to immediately use the tokens for their intended functionality (i.e., to purchase air charter services) at the time of sale; (iii) the company will restrict the transfer of tokens to company wallets only and not to external wallets; (iv) the tokens will be sold for one dollar to be used solely on the platform to purchase air charter services, and will be treated as having a value of one dollar; (v) if the company offers to repurchase tokens, it will do so at a discount to the face value of the tokens that the holder seeks to resell to the company, unless a court orders the company to liquidate the tokens; and (vi) the tokens will not be marketed in such a way that there is a perceived potential for an increase in the token’s market value.
On February 20, the SEC announced a cease-and-desist order with a cybersecurity startup for conducting an unregistered Initial Coin Offering (ICO), which the company self-reported. According to the order, in late 2017, the startup conducted an unregistered ICO, which raised approximately $12.7 million in digital assets. The money was used to finance the startup’s plan to “develop a network in which participants could rent spare bandwidth and storage space on their computers and servers to others for use in defense against certain types of cyberattacks.” The SEC noted that the tokens offered and sold were considered securities because a purchaser would have a reasonable expectation of obtaining a future profit from the investment. The startup did not register the ICO nor did it qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements. The SEC did not impose a monetary penalty because, according to the order, in the summer of 2018 the startup self-reported the unregistered ICO and offered to take prompt remedial actions. The order requires the startup to return the funds to investors who purchased the tokens and register the tokens as securities.
District Court rejects dismissal bid, determining plaintiff sufficiently alleged ICO tokens were unregistered stock
On December 10, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a motion to dismiss a putative class action, finding the plaintiff sufficiently alleged that a company’s sale of unregistered cryptocurrency tokens were “investment contracts” under securities law. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed the proposed class action against the company alleging it sold unregistered securities in violation of the Securities Act after purchasing $25,000 worth of tokens during the company’s initial coin offering (ICO). The company moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the tokens were not securities subject to the registration requirements of the Act. The court applied the three-prong “investment contract” test from SEC v. W.J. Howey Co.—“the three requirements for establishing an investment contract are: (1) an investment of money, (2) in a common enterprise, (3) with profits to come solely from the efforts of others”—and determined the token sales met the requirements. Focusing on the second and third prongs, because the company acknowledged the first was satisfied, the court concluded that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged the existence of a common enterprise by showing a “horizontal commonality” from the pooling of the contributions used to develop and maintain the company’s tasking platform. As for the third prong, the court determined the investors had an expectation of profit rather than simply a means to use the tasking platform, as demonstrated by the company’s marketing of the ICO as a “‘unique investment opportunity’ that would ‘generate better financial returns[.]’”
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.
On November 16, the SEC announced cryptocurrency-related settlements imposing civil money penalties against two companies that allegedly offered and sold digital tokens through initial coin offerings (ICO). The settlements are the SEC’s first cases imposing civil money penalties based solely on alleged ICO securities offering registration violations. According to the SEC, the two companies allegedly violated the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 by offering and selling ICO tokens without (i) registering them pursuant to federal securities laws; or (ii) qualifying for an exemption to registration requirements. Under the terms of the settlement agreements (available here and here), the companies—who have neither admitted nor denied the findings—have each agreed to pay a $250,000 civil money penalty, and will also (i) return funds to impacted investors; (ii) register the digital tokens as securities; and (iii) file periodic reports with the SEC.
On November 20, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies Division of Securities (Division) released a statement announcing four new cease-and-desist orders taken against companies for allegedly selling unregistered securities through initial coin offerings (ICOs) to Colorado consumers. The orders come as a result of investigations conducted by the Division’s ICO Task Force, which was created to investigate potentially fraudulent activity. According to the announcement, the Colorado Securities Commissioner has now signed orders for 18 cases against ICOs, and currently has at least two additional pending orders.
On September 11, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued a ruling that the U.S. government can proceed with a case for purposes of federal criminal law against a New York-based businessman who allegedly made “materially false and fraudulent representations and omissions” connected to virtual currencies/digital tokens backed by investments in real estate and diamonds sold through associated initial coin offerings (ICOs). The defendant—who was charged with conspiracy and two counts of securities fraud for his role in allegedly defrauding investors in two ICOs—claimed that the ICOs at issue were not securities but rather currencies, and that U.S. securities law was unconstitutionally vague as applied to ICOs. However, the U.S. government asserted that the investments made in the tokens were “investment contracts” and thereby “securities” as defined by the Securities Exchange Act. The U.S. government further argued that the jury should apply the central test used by the U.S. Supreme Court in SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. to determine if a financial instrument “constitutes an ‘investment contract’ under the federal securities laws.” The judge commented that “simply labeling an investment opportunity as ‘virtual currency’ or ‘cryptocurrency’ does not transform an investment contract—a security—into a currency.” Moreover, while the judge cautioned that it was too early to determine whether the virtual currencies sold in the ICOs were covered by U.S. securities law, he concluded that a “reasonable jury” may find that the allegations in the indictment support such a finding.
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.
On July 16, the CFTC issued an advisory to alert customers to exercise caution and conduct thorough research prior to purchasing virtual/digital coins or tokens. Specifically, customers are reminded (i) to conduct extensive due diligence on all “individuals and entities listed as affiliates of a digital coin or token offering”; (ii) to confirm whether the digital coins or tokens are securities and, if so, verify that the offering is registered with the SEC before investing in an Initial Coin Offering (ICO); (iii) to verify how the money will be utilized, if they can get it back, and what rights the digital coin or token provides; and (iv) that many ICOs are frauds.
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Navigating the challenges of the latest data protection regulations and proven protocols for breach prevention and response" at the ACI National Forum on Consumer Finance Class Actions and Government Enforcement
- Tim Lange to discuss "Ease your pain at the state level: Recommendations for navigating the licensing issues in the states" at the Online Lenders Alliance Compliance University
- Amanda R. Lawrence, Aaron C. Mahler, and Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Expanded role for the FTC ahead: Implications for bank and nonbank financial institutions" at an American Bar Association Banking Law Committee Webinar
- Buckley Webcast: Flirting with alternatives — Opportunities and challenges created by alternative data, modeling, and technology
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Reporting requirements for credit unions: CTRs and SARs" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions BSA Seminar
- Daniel P. Stipano and Moorari K. Shah to discuss "Vendor management: What is the NCUA looking for?" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions BSA Seminar
- Sasha Leonhardt and John B. Williams to discuss "Privacy" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Summer Regulatory Compliance School
- Warren W. Traiger to discuss "CRA modernization" at the National Association of Industrial Bankers and the Utah Association of Financial Services Annual Convention
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Ethical guidance in conducting internal investigations – The intersection of Yates and Upjohn" at the American Bar Association Southeastern White Collar Crime Institute
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA Section 8/referrals: How do you stay compliant?" at the New England Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Risk management in enforcement actions: Managing risk or micromanaging it" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Navigating the conflicting federal and state laws for doing business with cannabis companies" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Tim Lange to discuss "Services and value" at the North American Collection Agency Regulatory Association Annual Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Data privacy litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "How to ace your TRID exam" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "HMDA data is out, now what?" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Assessing the CDD final rule: A year of transitions" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions and CMPs" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Navigating FHA rules and regs" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "The state’s role in fintech: Providing an industry framework for innovation" at Lend360
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "How to balance a successful (and stressful) career with greater personal well-being" at the American Bar Association Women in Litigation Joint CLE Conference