Money Services Business

Actions Highlight Risky Mix of Sanctions Law, Inadequate Transaction Monitoring and Dealing with Anonymity-Enhanced Cryptocurrencies

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) announced on October 11 simultaneous settlements with Bittrex, Inc. (“Bittrex”), a virtual currency exchange and hosted wallet provider. Under the OFAC settlement, Bittrex has agreed to pay $24,280,829.20 to settle its potential civil liability for 116,421 alleged violations of multiple sanctions programs. Under the FinCEN consent order, Bittrex agreed to pay a civil penalty of $29,280,829.20 for alleged anti-money laundering (“AML”) violations under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). FinCEN has agreed to credit Bittrex’s payment to OFAC against its penalty because it found that the alleged BSA violations “stem from some of the same underlying conduct”; thus, Bittrex’s total payments to the two regulators come to $29,280,829.20. 

According to the Department of the Treasury dual press release, the two settlements represent the first parallel enforcement actions by FinCEN and OFAC in the virtual currency and sanctions space. Also, it is OFAC’s largest virtual currency enforcement action to date. To further highlight the importance of the settlements, the press release quotes the OFAC Director Andrea Gacki and FinCEN Acting Director Himamauli Das, both sternly warning operators in the same environment as Bittrex to implement effective AML compliance and sanction screening programs.

It is conceivable that Bittrex, for years now, has been on notice that federal and state regulators are closely watching and expecting more comprehensive risk assessment programs and procedures from businesses transacting with virtual currency. As we previously blogged here, in 2019 the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) denied Bittrex’s application for a Bitlicense, citing: “deficiencies in Bittrex’s BSA/AML/OFAC compliance program; a deficiency in meeting the Department’s capital requirement; and deficient due diligence and control over Bittrex’s token and product launches.”  In its letter denying Bittrex’s application, NYDFS set forth in detail the deficiencies it found in Bittrex’s BSA/AML/OFAC compliance program, noting that Bittrex’s compliance policies and procedures “are either non-existent or inadequate.”

As we will discuss, the FinCEN consent order highlights Bittrex’s alleged failure to address adequately the overall risk environment in which it operated, including transactions involving anonymity-enhanced cryptocurrencies, or AECs.  The consent order also highlights two repeated themes in enforcement actions: lack of adequate compliance staff, and a seemingly robust written compliance policy that was not matched by an effective day-to-day transaction monitoring system.

Continue Reading  OFAC and FinCEN Settle with Bittrex in Parallel Virtual Currency Enforcements

On Friday, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced two developments:  First, the release of a 66-page report, The Role of Law Enforcement in Detecting, Investigating, and Prosecuting Criminal Activity Related to Digital Assets (the “Report”), issued under President Biden’s March 9, 2022 Executive Order on Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets.  Second, the establishment of the Digital Asset Coordinator (“DAC”) Network, a nationwide group of prosecutors designated as legal and technical experts in digital asset cases.

We focus here on the regulatory and legislative recommendations of the Report, which seek to expand significantly the ability of the DOJ to investigate and prosecute offenses involving digital assets. The recommendations include increasing criminal penalties, extending statutes of limitations, expanding venue provisions, enhancing the government’s forfeiture powers, and prohibiting virtual asset service providers from “tipping off” the subjects of grand jury subpoenas received by the providers.  The recommendations also include making clear that the federal criminal law against maintaining an unlicensed money transmitter applies to peer-to-peer platforms that purportedly do not take custody or assume control over the digital asset being exchanged; ensuring that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issues a final rule expanding the application of the Travel Rule under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to digital asset transfers; and expanding or arguably clarifying that the BSA applies to platforms dealing in non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, including online auction houses and digital art galleries.

Continue Reading  DOJ Issues Report on Digital Asset Law Enforcement Seeking Expansive New Powers, and Launches New Crypto Prosecutor Network

Enforcement Trends, Crypto, the AML Act — and More

We are very pleased to be moderating, once again, the Practising Law Institute’s 2022 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 17, 2022, starting at 9 a.m. This year’s conference will be both live and virtual — and it will be as informative, interesting and timely as always. 

Travel Rule and Beneficiary Information Continues to Challenge Virtual Asset Service Providers

In late October, the Financial Action Task Force issued its long-awaited updated guidance on Virtual Assets and Virtual Asset Service Providers (“FATF Guidance”), an extremely lengthy and detailed document setting forth how virtual asset service providers (“VASPs”) and related virtual asset activities fall within the scope of FATF standards for anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”).  The FATF Guidance is important to VASPs worldwide, as well as the more traditional financial institutions (“FIs”) doing business with them.  Because of its great breadth, we focus here only on its comments regarding implementation of the so-called “Travel Rule” for virtual assets.  This portion of the FATF Guidance is particularly relevant to the U.S. because, as we have blogged, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) proposed regulations in 2020 – still pending – which would change the Travel Rule by lowering the monetary threshold for FIs from $3,000 to $250 for collecting, retaining, and transmitting information related to international funds transfers, and explicitly would make the Travel Rule apply to transfers involving convertible virtual currencies.

The FATF Guidance has additional relevance to U.S. VASPs and FIs because, this month, the U.S. President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (“PWG”), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), and the Office of the Comptroller (“OCC”) (together, “the U.S. Agencies”) issued a Report on Stablecoins (the “Report”).  Stablecoins are digital assets designed to maintain stable value as related to other reference assets, such as the U.S. Dollar.  In the Report, the U.S. Agencies delineate perceived risks associated with the increased use of stablecoins and highlight three types of concerns: risks to rules governing AML compliance, risks to market integrity, and general prudential risks.  We of course will focus here on the Report’s discussion of AML risks, particularly because it repeatedly invokes the FATF Guidance, thereby illustrating the increasing efforts by governments to seek a global and relatively coordinated approach to addressing AML/CFT concerns regarding virtual assets.
Continue Reading  Global Developments in AML and Virtual Assets:  FATF Guidance and the Travel Rule, and U.S. Pronouncements on Stablecoins

On October 6, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced the creation of a National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (“NCET”).  The DOJ press release is set forth in part below, without further commentary, other than to observe that the NCET’s stated goals are to address issues on which we repeatedly have blogged:  crypto exchangers and their AML

Government Alleges Systemic and Deliberate AML Failures

Filings Describe Tools for CVC Exchanges to Use for Customer Due Diligence and Transaction Monitoring

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) announced on August 10 (here and here) settlements with the operators of the BitMEX cryptocurrency trading platform for alleged anti-money laundering (“AML”) violations under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and for allegedly failing to register with the CFTC.  More specifically, FinCEN’s assessment of a civil monetary penalty and the CFTC’s consent order both involved the five companies operating the BitMEX platform: HDR Global Trading Limited, 100x Holding Limited, ABS Global Trading Limited, Shine Effort Inc Limited, and HDR Global Services (Bermuda) Limited (collectively, “BitMEX”).

BitMEX will pay regulators up to a combined $100 million civil monetary penalty; perform a “lookback” regarding the potential need to file additional Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”); and hire an independent consultant to conduct two reviews of BitMEX’s operations, policies, procedures, and controls, in order to confirm that BitMEX is not operating in the U.S., and that no U.S. customers are able to trade with the BitMEX platform.

According to the government filings, BitMEX is one of the oldest cryptocurrency derivative exchanges, with 1.3 million user accounts and a collection of annual fees in excess of $1 billion.  Combined, the government filings allege that for a period of six years between November 2014 and October 1, 2020, BitMEX offered trading of cryptocurrency derivatives to retail and institutional customers in the U.S. and worldwide through BitMEX’s website. Customers in the U.S. placed orders to buy or sell contracts directly through the website and BitMEX was aware that U.S. customers could access the BitMEX platform via virtual private network (“VPN”).

The civil penalty will be split between FinCEN and the CFTC.  However, the settlement involves an interesting “carrot” offered by the regulators:  $20 million of the penalty is suspended pending the successful completion of the SAR lookback and the two independent consultant reviews.

According to the government’s allegations, BitMEX deliberately ignored for years the most basic AML requirements, resulting in multitudinous violations and inviting – and even encouraging – its customers to launder illicit funds.  As we will describe, the government has alleged that BitMEX operated on the announced pretext that it was not subject to the BSA or U.S. commodities laws because it had no U.S. customers or operations, when senior management knew otherwise.
Continue Reading  FinCEN and CFTC Reach Groundbreaking $100 Million AML Settlement with BitMEX

A Guest Blog by Professor Moyara Ruehsen

Today we are very pleased to welcome guest blogger Moyara Ruehsen, PhD, CAMS, CFCS, who is  an Associate Professor and Director of the Financial Crime Management Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. For more than 20 years, Professor Ruehsen has taught financial crime-related courses on a variety of topics including money laundering, trade-based financial crime, corruption, proliferation financing, terrorist financing and cyber-enabled financial crime.  She has published articles and book chapters on a variety of topics related to threat finance and is a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist and a Certified Financial Crime Specialist. Professor Ruehsen also consults for the U.S. government, multilateral organizations and the private sector. She served for several years on the Editorial Advisory Board of Money Laundering Alert, and the Middle East Task Force of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists, or ACAMS.

For an extremely entertaining and illuminating discussion by Professor Ruehsen of how popular TV and movies get money laundering right (and wrong), see here.

This blog post takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Professor Ruehsen responds to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the critical topic of cyber-enabled financial crime. We hope you enjoy this discussion, which addresses how cyber-enabled financial crime threatens financial institutions and their customers. –Peter Hardy
Continue Reading  Cyber-Enabled Financial Crime and Money Laundering

We are really pleased to be moderating the Practising Law Institute’s 2020 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 12, 2020, starting at 9 a.m. Perhaps needless to say, this year’s conference will be entirely virtual.  But the conference still should be as informative, interesting and timely as always.  Our conference co-chair, Nicole S. Healy of Ropers