Transaction Monitoring

On December 15, 2022, the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) published an Industry Letter detailing the Department’s guidance regarding banking organizations that wish to engage in virtual currency-related activities. Specifically, while the guidance reminds New York banking organizations, branches, and agencies of foreign banking organizations licensed by the Department (together, “Covered Institutions”) of the preexisting obligation to seek approval from the Department before engaging in new or significantly different virtual currency-related activity, the guidance describes the process and types of information that the Department considers relevant to its approval process.  The guidance is effective as of December 15, 2022, and was accompanied by a press release from NYDFS’ Superintendent Adrienne A. Harris.

For the purposes of the Industry Letter, “virtual currency-related activity” includes “all ‘virtual currency business activity,’ as that term is defined in 23 NYCRR § 200.2(q), as well as the direct or indirect offering or performance of any other product, service, or activity involving virtual currency that may raise safety and soundness concerns for the Covered Institution or that may expose New York customers of the Covered Institution or other users of the product or service to risk of harm.”  As we will discuss, any Covered Institution seeking NYDFS approval should focus in part on addressing the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”)/Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Office of Foreign Asset Control (“OFAC”)-related risks posed by the virtual currency-related activity.

Continue Reading  NYDFS Releases Virtual Currency Guidance for Banking Organizations

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) announced (here and here) yesterday that virtual currency exchange Payward, Inc. – better known as Kraken – has agreed to pay $362,158.70 in order to settle its potential civil liability for apparent violations of the sanctions against Iran. Kraken also has agreed to invest an additional $100,000 in certain sanctions compliance controls.  According to OFAC, “[d]ue to Kraken’s failure to timely implement appropriate geolocation tools, including an automated internet protocol (IP) address blocking system, Kraken exported services to users who appeared to be in Iran when they engaged in virtual currency transactions on Kraken’s platform.” 

Compared to OFAC’s recent settlement with Bittrex, which agreed to pay a total of $29,280,829.20 to OFAC and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) in order to resolve allegations of sanctions and Bank Secrecy Act violations, the settlement amount is relatively low – and, as OFAC noted in its announcement, Kraken faced an astronomical statutory maximum civil monetary penalty of $272,228,964.  OFAC has stated that “[t]he settlement amount reflects OFAC’s determination that Kraken’s apparent violations were non-egregious and voluntarily self-disclosed.”

Continue Reading  Kraken Settlement Demonstrates Importance of Sanctions Monitoring for Transactions — Not Just When Onboarding Customers

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

With Guest Speaker Matthew Haslinger of M&T Bank

We are extremely pleased to offer a podcast (here) on the legal and logistical issues facing financial institutions as they implement the regulations issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) pursuant to the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (AMLA) and the Corporate Transparency Act

Case Involves Familiar But Instructive Regulatory Findings

The New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) made clear last week that crypto companies can be held accountable for allegedly failing to comply with anti-money laundering (“AML”) / Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations.  Federal and certain State laws require crypto companies like Robinhood Crypto, LLC (“RHC”) to maintain effective AML programs, and to implement systems to identify suspicious activity and block illegal transactions on their platforms (which we have previously discussed, including here and here).  On August 2, 2022, NYDFS announced that it entered a Consent Order penalizing RHC $30 million for alleged AML, cybersecurity and consumer protection violations.  RHC also is required to retain an independent consultant to perform compliance assessments evaluating the Company’s remediation efforts. 

This enforcement action is entirely consistent with the recent Guidance on Use of Blockchain Analytics issued by the NYDFS, directed to all virtual currency business entities that either have a NYDFS Bitlicense or are chartered as a limited purpose trust company under the New York Banking Law.  As we have blogged, the Guidance emphasizes “the importance of blockchain analytics to effective [AML] policies, processes, and procedures, including, for example, those relating to customer due diligence, transaction monitoring, and sanctions screening.”

The Consent Order contains a litany of alleged AML deficiencies, many of which have figured prominently in other enforcement actions.  We detail them below.  From a BSA/AML perspective, the key focus – not surprisingly – was on the adequacy of RHC’s transaction monitoring systems.  Again, the message is:  written policies and programs may look great on their face, but actual execution is key.  The adequate funding and staffing of compliance functions is also critical.

Continue Reading  Crypto Compliance Matters: NYDFS Fines Robinhood $30M for Alleged AML, Cybersecurity, and Consumer Protection Violations

On April 28, 2022 the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) issued its Guidance on Use of Blockchain Analytics, a document directed to all virtual currency business entities that either have a NYDFS Bitlicense or are chartered as a limited purpose trust company under the New York Banking Law.  The Guidance emphasizes “the importance of blockchain analytics to effective policies, processes, and procedures, including, for example, those relating to customer due diligence, transaction monitoring, and sanctions screening.”

The NYDFS is stressing the role of blockchain analytics in anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance because “virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and Ether can be transferred peer-to-peer directly from one individual or entity to another pseudonymously, absent the use of a regulated third party (e.g., between non-custodial wallets, or self-hosted wallets that allow users to maintain control of their private keys). . . . [T]hese wallet addresses are typically pseudonymous, with nothing on the face of the transfer tying back to the originator, beneficiary, or underlying beneficial owners.”

Given the potential compliance challenges presented by such characteristics, the NYDFS wants virtual currency entities to leverage the fact that virtual currencies also enable provenance tracing because “the blockchain ledger’s immutability typically allows a historical view of a virtual currency transmission between wallet addresses, providing the opportunity for greater visibility into transaction lineage than is typically found with traditional, fiat funds transfers.”

The Guidance provides that, ultimately, all risk mitigation strategies must account for an entity’s business profile to assess risk across types of virtual currencies and effectively address the specific characteristics of any particular virtual currency involved.  If a virtual currency entity chooses to outsource its control functions to third-party service providers rather than use only internally developed blockchain analytics, it must have “clearly documented policies, processes, and procedures with regard to how the [third-party] blockchain analytics activity integrates into the [entity’s] overall control framework consistent with the [entity’s] risk profile.”
Continue Reading  NYDFS Stresses Use of Blockchain Analytics for AML Compliance by Virtual Currency Businesses

Second Post in a Three-Post Series Regarding Recent Regulatory Action by FinCEN

On September 16, 2020, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) soliciting public comment on what it describes as “a wide range of questions pertaining to potential regulatory amendments under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).” As stated, the job which FinCEN created for itself that resulted in the ANPRM was not a small one: “to re-examine the BSA regulatory framework and the broader AML regime.”

The ANPRM seeks to help modernize the current BSA/AML regime – modernization being a frequent theme of public comments by FinCEN Director Ken Blanco, as we have blogged. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing calls for AML modernization, in order to “[l]everag[e] new technologies and other responsible innovative compliance approaches to more effectively and efficiently detect illicit activity.” Meanwhile, and as we have blogged, Congress has been contemplating various proposals for BSA/AML reform for some time (see here, here, here, here and here).

Despite its broad language, however, the ANPRM essentially boils down to a potential amendment requiring those financial institutions already required under the BSA to have an AML compliance program to formally include a risk assessment as part of their program – and for the risk assessment to take into account the government’s AML priorities, which the government will announce approximately every two years. On the one hand, this proposal does not add much that is new, because the vast majority of financial institutions required to maintain AML programs already perform risk assessments in order to conduct KYC and file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”). On the other hand, the ANPRM takes a standard industry practice and turns it into a new regulatory requirement, thereby increasing liability risk. The ANPRM also touches on the tension between the government creating objective requirements – which can be helpful because they add clarity – in a compliance and enforcement regime that is supposed to be flexible and “risk based.” Under any scenario, the ANPRM is important and certainly will be the focus of industry attention.

This is the second post in a series of three blogs regarding a recent flurry of regulatory activity by FinCEN. In our first post, we discussed a final rule by FinCEN extending BSA/AML regulatory requirements to banks lacking a Federal functional regulator. In our third and final post, we will discuss the publication by FinCEN of a request for comment on existing regulations regarding enhanced due diligence for correspondent bank accounts.
Continue Reading  Regulatory Round Up: FinCEN Issues ANPRM on Modernizing the BSA/AML Regulatory Regime