Treasury Offers Something for Everyone to Comply With: Trades and Businesses, Banks, Crypto Exchangers and Individuals

On May 21, 2021, the U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) released its American Families Plan Tax Compliance Agenda (“Agenda”), a comprehensive set of initiatives to increase tax compliance and close the “tax gap” between the amount taxpayers owe and the amount that is actually paid.  While part of the $80 billion plan calls for providing Treasury and specifically the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) with additional resources to combat tax evasion, the Agenda also proposes revisions to current regulations and leveraging existing infrastructure to “shed light on previously opaque income sources;” namely, cryptocurrency.  Although the sweeping Agenda obviously focuses on tax compliance, it also has related consequences for Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance in areas where the BSA and the tax code overlap as to cryptocurrency.

The Agenda also represents the latest in a string of initiatives by the U.S. government regarding the increasing regulation of the use of cryptocurrency, whether by direct users, exchangers of cryptocurrency, or financial institutions with customers dealing in cryptocurrency.  The Agenda represents both an acknowledgement by the U.S. Treasury that cryptocurrency use has become “normalized,” coupled with a clear signal that its use will be highly scrutinized and regulated.
Continue Reading As Treasury Eyes Crypto in Tax Compliance Agenda, Reporting Obligations May Increase – Including a Crypto “Form 8300” for Transactions over $10K

In Related Case, Federal Court Holds that Bitcoin-to-Bitcoin “Tumbler” Can Represent “Money Transmission”

On April 27, IRS CI and FBI Special Agents arrested Roman Sterlingov, a dual citizen of Russia and Sweden, for his alleged role as the founder and operator of Bitcoin Fog, a cryptocurrency “tumbler” or “mixer” aimed at concealing the source of funds. The criminal complaint and accompanying Statement of Facts, filed in the District of Columbia, alleges that over the course of 10 years, Bitcoin Fog moved more than 1.2 million bitcoin, valued (at the time of the transactions) at about $335 million. According to the government’s press release, “[t]he bulk of this cryptocurrency came from darknet marketplaces and was tied to illegal narcotics, computer fraud and abuse activities, and identity theft.”

Sterlingov allegedly founded the site while promoting it under the pseudonym Akemashite Omedetou, a Japanese phrase that means “Happy New Year.” In a post on an online Bitcoin forum, Omedetou advertised that Bitcoin Fog “[mixes] up your bitcoins in our own pool with other users,” and “can eliminate any chance of finding your payments and making it impossible to prove any connection between a deposit and a withdraw inside our service.”

Ironically, Sterlingov was identified by investigators using the very same sort of tracing that Bitcoin Fog was meant to forestall. The Statement of Facts outlines in extensive detail how Sterlingov allegedly paid for Bitcoin Fog’s domain using a now-defunct digital currency; it goes on to show a series of transactions recorded to the blockchain that identifies Sterlingov’s purchase of that currency with bitcoin. Based on tracing those financial transactions, investigators were able to identify Sterlingov’s home address and phone number, together with a Google account that hosts a document that describes how to obscure bitcoin payments – that document mirrors closely the methods Sterlingov allegedly employed to purchase the Bitcoin Fog domain.

In addition to thanking various domestic law enforcement agencies, the government’s press release highlights the international nature of the investigation by also thanking Europol and Swedish and Romanian law enforcement agencies. The criminal complaint against Sterlingov is therefore another example of IRC-CI pursuing its simultaneous goals of fighting crypto-related crime and collaborating with foreign law enforcement officials in order to do so.

Notably, this is the second case brought by the Department of Justice, Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, targeting virtual currency mixer operations. In United States v. Harmon, a case also being prosecuted in the District of Columbia, the defendant has similarly been charged for his alleged role in operating Helix, a bitcoin mixer that sent more than $300 million in bitcoin to designated recipients.
Continue Reading DOJ Again Charges Crypto “Mixer” Under the BSA and District of Columbia’s Money Transmitters Act

Fifth Post in an Extended Series on Legislative Changes to BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

As we have blogged, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”) makes major changes to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and the U.S. approach to money laundering, anti-money laundering (“AML”), counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) and protecting the U.S. financial system against illicit foreign actors.  For example, the AMLA requires covered businesses to report beneficial ownership information to a central federal database; broadens the stated purpose of the BSA; expands the options and protections for whistleblowers alleging AML violations; and expands the U.S. government’s authority to subpoena information from foreign financial institutions with U.S. correspondent bank account relationships.

In addition to these changes, Congress also has used the AMLA as a tool to gather information on complex issues involving money laundering risks and BSA/AML compliance by requiring many studies and reports.  In this post, we focus on two important issues for which Congress has required reports from the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”):  human trafficking and de-risking.

The willingness to address these problems through the AMLA shows that Congress is aware of the nexus between money laundering and human rights violations—and more importantly, appears ready to leverage the information gathered by the GAO in order to potentially address that nexus through future legislation.  Congress is not alone in its concern.  For example, the United Nations issued a report earlier this month on how transnational financial crime can impair sustainable development across the globe, worsen inequality, and fuel instability.
Continue Reading Congress Tasks GAO to Study the Intersection of Money Laundering and Humanitarian Issues:  Human Trafficking and De-Risking

Reunification of Korean Peninsula Memorial at the Entrance to Pyongyang

Related Money Laundering Case Relying on ATM Cash-Outs and BEC Schemes Also Unsealed

On February 17, the Department of Justice unsealed a sprawling indictment against three members of North Korea’s military intelligence agency – known as the Reconnaissance General Bureau –

The Comptroller of the Currency (the “OCC”) has been busy, and focused on technology.  We discuss two recent developments: proposed regulations that would allow the OCC to grant exemptions relating to Suspicious Acivity Reports (“SARs”), and the OCC’s announcement that national banks and federal savings associations may employ both independent node verification networks (“INVNs”) and stablecoins to perform banking functions.

SAR Filing Exemptions

In late December, the OCC proposed new regulations to amend the “Suspicious Activity Report regulations to allow the OCC to issue exemptions . . . for national banks or federal savings associations that develop innovative solutions intended to meet Bank Secrecy Act requirements more efficiently and effectively.” While the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has long held the power to grant exemptions, the OCC does not possess equivalent authority. “As financial technology and innovation” rapidly evolve in monitoring and reporting financial crime, the OCC has determined it must create a flexible regulatory mechanism to keep pace.
Continue Reading The OCC Embraces Technology, Proposes Exemption to SAR Requirements and Announces Acceptance of Distributed Ledgers and Stablecoins

On December 18, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a proposal to impose on banks and money service businesses (“affected institutions”) a new set of rules for digital currency transactions involving “unhosted” digital asset wallets (i.e., wallets that are not provided by a financial institution or other service and reside instead on a user’s personal device or offline).  The proposed rule states that, for the purposes of these new requirements only, the definition of “monetary instruments” at 31 U.S.C. § 5312(a)(3) would be expanded to include convertible virtual currency and digital assets with legal tender status.  If adopted, the rule will create significant obligations for recordkeeping, reporting, and identity verification requirements.
Continue Reading FinCEN Proposes New Rule for “Unhosted” Virtual Currency Wallets

Stated Concern is that Terrorism is Funded Primarily Through Small International Transfers

Proposed Change Would Expand BSA Definition of “Money” to Include Virtual Currency

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the Federal Reserve Board (“Board”) have requested comment on an important proposed new rule that would amend the “Recordkeeping Rule” and “Travel Rule” under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and expand them significantly. The proposed regulation would reduce the current $3,000 threshold to only $250 for international transfers, thereby substantially expanding the scope of these rules.

Even by FinCEN’s own estimates, the effect would be broad. According to FinCEN, the new regulation would affect an estimated 5,306 banks, 5,236 credit unions, and 12,692 money transmitters – including exchangers of digital assets, who arguably would be most impacted by the new regulation. Further, FinCEN estimates – likely conservatively – that compliance would require no less than 3.3 million additional hours, annually. FinCEN and the Board strongly suggest that such compliance burdens are worth the effort, given the perceived value to law enforcement in combatting terrorism, which tends to be funded by small international transfers.
Continue Reading To Fight Terrorism, FinCEN and Federal Reserve Board Request Comment on Proposed Major Expansion of Recordkeeping and Travel Rules for International Transfers

Incorporating in the Seychelles but Allegedly Operating in the U.S. Spells Trouble for Company and its Founders

Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue Island, Seychelles

The Bitcoin Mercantile Exchange, or BitMEX, is a large and well-known online trading platform dealing in futures contracts and other derivative products tied to the value of cryptocurrencies. Recently, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) filed a civil complaint against the holding companies that own and operate BitMEX, incorporated in the Seychelles, and three individual co-founders and co-owners of BitMEX for allegedly failing to register with the CFTC and violating various laws and regulations under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”). The 40-page complaint alleges in part that the defendants operated BitMEX as an unregistered future commission merchant and seeks monetary penalties and injunction relief.

In a one-two punch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York on the same day unsealed an indictment against the same three individuals, as well as a fourth individual who allegedly served various roles at BitMEX, including as its Head of Business Development. The indictment charges the defendants with violating, and conspiring to violate, the requirement under 31 U.S.C. § 5318(h) of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) that certain financial institutions – including futures commissions merchants – maintain an adequate anti-money laundering (“AML”) program.

Both documents are detailed and unusual. This appears to be only the second contested civil complaint filed by the CFTC based on the failure to register under the CEA in connection with the alleged illegal trading of digital assets (other than those for which settlement orders were entered into with the CFTC). The first such complaint was filed only a week prior against Latino Group Limited (doing business as PaxForex), but the BitMEX complaint has garnered more attention in light of BitMEX’s reputation and size. Most of the CFTC’s prior actions against digital asset companies involved claims for fraud or misrepresentation in the solicitation of customers. This complaint, against a relatively mature and large digital asset company, demonstrates that the CFTC continues to actively pursue trading platforms and exchanges that solicit orders in the United States without proper registration. In addition to failing to register, the complaint alleges that the defendants failed to comply with the regulation under the CEA, 17 C.F.R. § 42.2, which incorporates BSA requirements such as an adequate AML program.

The indictment is unusual because it charges a rare criminal violation of Section 5318(h) – the general requirement to maintain an adequate AML program. Although indictments against defendants involved in digital assets are increasingly common, this also appears to be the first indictment combining allegations involving the BSA, digital assets, and alleged futures commissions merchants.

The complaint and the indictment share the common theme that the defendants attempted to avoid U.S. law and regulation by incorporating in the Seychelles but nonetheless operating in the United States. The opening lines of the CFTC complaint declare that “BitMEX touts itself as the world’s largest cryptocurrency derivatives platform in the world with billions of dollars’ worth of trading each day. Much of this trading volume and its profitability derives from its extensive access to United States markets and customers.” Meanwhile, the indictment alleges that defendant Arthur Hayes – a Fortune “40 Under 40” listee – “bragged . . . that the Seychelles was a more friendly jurisdiction for BitMEX because it cost less to bribe Seychellois authorities – just “a coconut” – than it would cost to bribe regulators in the United States and elsewhere.”
Continue Reading CFTC and DOJ Charge BitMEX and Executives With Illegally Trading in Digital Assets and Ignoring BSA/AML Requirements

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recently published a report titled Virtual Assets: Red Flag Indicators of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing. The report discusses a number of red flag indicators of suspicious virtual asset (VA) activities identified “through more than one hundred case studies collected since 2017 from across the FATF Global Network, literature reviews, and open source research.” The purpose of the report is to help financial institutions (FIs), designated non-financial businesses and professions (DNFBPs), and virtual asset service providers (VASPs) to create a “risk-based approach to their Customer Due Diligence (CDD) requirements.”

The report focuses on the following six categories of red flag indicators: those (1) related to transactions, (2) related to transaction patterns, (3) related to anonymity, (4) about senders or recipients, (5) in the source of funds or wealth, and (6) related to geographical risks.

When discussing red flags relating to transactions, FATF suggests that the size and frequency of transactions can be a good indicator of suspicious activity. For example, making multiple high-value transactions in short succession (i.e. within a 24-hour period) or in a staggered and regular pattern, with no further transactions during a long period afterwards. With regard to transaction patterns, FATF notes that large initial deposits with new users or transactions involving multiple accounts should also raise suspicion.
Continue Reading FATF Identifies Red Flags for Virtual Assets and Money Laundering