Money Services Business

As digital currency continues to evolve, it continues to pose unfolding compliance, regulatory and criminal law challenges.  We will present two webinars on this topic in September, in which we will discuss issues posed under the Bank Secrecy Act and the money laundering and federal securities laws, among other issues.

The first webinar, “Current

As digital currency becomes more ubiquitous, state and federal regulators across the United States, as well as regulators in many other countries, are examining how existing regulatory structures need to be adapted to account for unique aspects of digital currency. News from both India and Australia reflect different approaches to the ever-evolving world of digital currency and potential money laundering risks associated with that currency.  As we previously have blogged, U.S. enforcement personnel aggressively have asserted jurisdiction over international digital currency operations.  As we will discuss, it appears that digital currency businesses will find themselves having to comply with a kaleidoscope of various Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) regulatory regimes across the globe.
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On July 26, FinCEN, in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California (“NDCA USAO”), assessed a $110,003,314 civil money penalty against BTC-e a/k/a Canton Business Corporation (“BTC-e”) for willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and a $12 million penalty against Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national who is one of the alleged operators of BTC-e, for his role in the violations.  FinCEN’s press release indicates that this is the first enforcement action it has taken against a foreign-located money services business (“MSB”) doing business in the United States.  As we previously have blogged, FinCEN released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is an MSB under the BSA unless a limitation or exemption applies.

In a parallel criminal investigation, Vinnik was arrested and detained in Greece and charged in a 21-count superseding indictment brought by the NDCA USAO and DOJ’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. The superseding indictment alleges that Vinnik and BTC-e operated an unlicensed MSB doing business in the U.S., in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960, and committed money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957, by facilitating virtual currency transactions involving various crimes, including computer hacking, identity theft, tax refund fraud schemes, public corruption, and drug trafficking. The superseding indictment also provides some clues to the fate of the collapsed virtual currency exchange Mt. Gox, once reportedly the largest such exchange in the world.
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On Monday, the state of Florida moved a step closer towards amending its money laundering statute to include the nefarious use of bitcoin and other virtual currencies. The bill, H.B. 1379, has sailed through a committee vote and will now be presented to the floor. If the bill passes, it will serve, in pertinent part, to define bitcoin and “virtual currency” (“VC”) as “monetary instruments” within the meaning of the state’s money laundering statute; in the same vein, bitcoin will be defined as a “medium of exchange in electronic or digital format that is not a coin or currency of the United States or any other country.”
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It is a potential crime to conduct a business that exchanges virtual currency and fail to register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN“), even if the State in which one operates does not impose a similar licensing requirement. A federal district court in Louisiana has reaffirmed this principle in United States v. Lord, in which the defendants unsuccessfully sought to withdraw their pleas of guilty to offenses based on a failure to register with FinCEN.

Law and Justice

The defendants are father and son. According to the court opinion, in 2013, they began to operate a bitcoin business through a website called localbitcoins.com, which advertised the services of other bitcoin exchangers. The defendants’ clients provided cash, credit card payments and wire transfers to the defendants to purchase bitcoins from a third-party online bitcoin broker on their client’s behalf, in exchange for commissions charged by the defendants. In the Spring of 2014, the third-party bitcoin broker warned the defendants that they were required to register with FinCEN because they were acting as virtual currency exchangers. Although the defendants allegedly misrepresented to the third-party online broker that they already had registered with FinCEN, the defendants did not actually register until November 2014. By that time, however, they already had exchanged more than $2.5 million worth of virtual currency. This registration delay was the basis of the charges relating to the defendants’ virtual currency business.
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The Joint Committee of the European Supervisory Authorities (ESA) issued on February 10, 2017 draft rules regarding certain anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorism steps for Member States of the European Union (EU). The draft rules seek to provide a consistent framework for payment service providers or electronic money issuers which provide cross-border services within the