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

Today we are very pleased to welcome, once again, guest blogger Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska of the Basel Institute on Governance (“Basel Institute”), who will discuss the Basel Institute’s recent release of the Basel AML Index for 2022 (the “Index”). The data-rich annual Index is a research-based ranking that assesses countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing. It is one of several excellent online tools developed by the Basel Institute to help both public- and private-sector practitioners tackle financial crime.  We are excited to continue this annual dialogue between the Basel Institute and Money Laundering Watch.

Established in 2003, the Basel Institute, an Associated Institute of the University of Basel, is a not-for-profit Swiss foundation dedicated to working with public and private partners around the world to prevent and combat corruption. The Institute’s work involves action, advice and research on issues including anti-corruption collective action, asset recovery, corporate governance and compliance, and more.

Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska is Project Manager for the Basel AML Index at the Basel Institute. A political scientist, she holds a PhD in Political Science from the National Academy of Science in Ukraine, a master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich as well as a master’s degree in Political Science from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. Before joining the Basel Institute, Dr. Boguslavska worked at Chatham House in London as an Academy Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Dr. Boguslavska responds to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Basel AML Index 2022. We hope you enjoy this discussion of global money laundering risks — which addresses enforcement, virtual assets, environmental crime, AML for lawyers, how the U.S. is performing, and more.  –Peter Hardy

Continue Reading  The Basel AML Index 2022: One Step Forward, Four Steps Back. A Guest Blog.

Report Previews Potential Implications for the United States

The European Commission (“Commission”) recently released its 2022 Supranational Risk Assessment Report (“SNRA Report”) to the European Parliament and Counsel regarding the “risk of money laundering and terrorist financing affecting the internal market and relating to cross-border activities.”  The SNRA Report analyzes, on a broad scale, money laundering and terrorism financing risks and proposes a plan of action to address them.  The Report also examines more specifically “sectors or products where relevant changes have been detected.” 

The SNRA Report flags the “Gambling Sector” as a “high risk” area of Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) concern, with a particular focus on online gambling.  According to the Commission, online gambling presents a particularly high AML/CFT risk due to factors such as “the non-face-to face element, [and] huge and complex volumes of transactions and financial flows.”  The potential use of e-money and virtual currencies, as well as the emergence of unlicensed online gambling sites, exacerbates this risk.

As the European Union (“EU”) considers how to tackle the potential risks of online gambling, the United States is simultaneously grappling with the rapid expansion of online gambling and online sports betting in particular.  Before May 2018, when the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that effectively banned commercial sports betting in most states, Nevada was the only state with legalized sports betting in the United States.  Although California ballot Proposition 27, which would have legalized online and mobile sports betting in California, failed to pass during last week’s national and state elections, more than 30 states still have legalized some form of sports betting, and there is politial pressure to continue to expand online gambling and other forms of gaming.  As Americans jockey for the immense potential receipts that the expansion of online gambling can bring, it may be worth taking a page out of the EU’s book in order to consider the potential money laundering and terrorist financing risks that can accompany it.

Continue Reading  European Commission Highlights Online Gambling’s Money Laundering Risks

The “Highlights” — To Russia, With Crypto

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued on November 1 a Financial Trend Analysis regarding ransomware-related Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) filings during the second half of 2021 (the “Report”).  This publication follows up on a similar ransomware trend analysis issued by FinCEN regarding the first half of 2021, on which we blogged here.  

In the most recent analysis, FinCEN found that both the number of ransomware-related Suspicious Activity Reports (“SAR”) filed, and the dollar amounts at issue, nearly tripled from 2020 to 2021.  The notable takeaways from the Report include:

  • Ransomware-related SARs were the highest ever in 2021 (both in number of SARs and in dollar amounts of activity reported).
  • Ransomware-related SARs reported amounts totaling almost $1.2 billion in 2021.
  • Approximately 75% of ransomware-related incidents between June 2021 and December 2021 were connected to Russia-related ransomware variants.

The Report, which stated that the majority of these ransomware payments were made in Bitcoin, serves as a particular reminder to cryptocurrency exchanges of their role in both identifying and reporting ransomware-related transactions facilitated through their platforms.  The Report stresses that SAR filings play an essential role in helping FinCEN identify ransomware trends.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Reports Staggering Increase in Reported Ransomware Attacks

On October 19, 2022, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C., on behalf of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), filed a civil complaint against Larry Dean Harmon (“Harmon”), seeking $60 million in civil penalties for alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) in connection with Harmon’s involvement in now-defunct cryptocurrency services Helix and Coin Ninja LLC.  The complaint seeks to obtain a judgment on FinCEN’s 2020 Assessment of Civil Money Penalty against Harmon (“Assessment”), which is attached to the complaint and includes a detailed statement of facts.

As we have blogged, Harmon previously pled guilty to operating an unlicensed money transmitter business.  Harmon’s sentencing hearing in the criminal case has been continued, and he reportedly has been attempting to cooperate with the government.  It appears that the civil complaint may represent something of a formality:  it seeks to reduce the assessment against Harmon to an actual civil judgment, upon which the government can collect in theory, in anticipation of Harmon’s criminal sentencing and any potential additional matters in which he may attempt to cooperate.

According to the complaint, starting in 2014, Harmon operated Helix, a bitcoin “mixing” service, which Harmon allegedly advertised explicitly as a way for customers to conceal their identities from the government.  The statement of facts attached to the Assessment alleged that Harmon “publicly advertised Helix on Reddit forums dedicated to darknet marketplaces, actively seeking out and facilitating high-risk transactions directly through customer service and feedback.”  Such “mixing” services – designed to maximize anonymity – increasingly have drawn the ire of the government, as reflected by the recent and controversial action by the Office of Foreign Assets Control to sanction virtual currency “mixer” – or passive technology – Tornado Cash.  

Continue Reading  DOJ Files Lawsuit for $60 Million in Civil Penalties for Alleged BSA Violations by Crypto “Mixer”

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

Complaint Illustrates Existential Fight Over OFAC’s Ability to Sanction Open-Source Code – and OFAC Responds (?) By Issuing FAQs on Tornado Cash Use

Last month, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) sanctioned Tornado Cash, a virtual currency “mixer” operating on the Ethereum blockchain which allegedly has been used to launder the virtual currency equivalent of more than $7 billion since its creation in 2019, by adding it to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (the “SDN List”). The initial response from certain elements of the crypto community was, not surprisingly, negative: for example, an 8/15 Coin Center whitepaper and an 8/23 letter from Congressman Tom Emmer to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen argued that OFAC lacked the legal authority.

In the intervening month, things have heated up considerably. Last week, six plaintiffs filed a complaint against OFAC and the Treasury Department, as well as Secretary Yellen and OFAC Director Andrea Gacki in their respective official capacities, in the Western District of Texas (Waco Division), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief – specifically, that the court declare OFAC’s addition of Tornado Cash to the SDN List as unlawful, and permanently enjoin the enforcement of the designation and any sanctions stemming therefrom.  Plaintiffs allege that venue is proper due to Plaintiff Joseph Van Loon’s residence in Cedar Park, TX, within the Western District.  Plaintiffs’ decision to opt for the Waco Division, rather than the Austin Division, may be intentional, because the Waco Division has only one judge, who until recently has been the go-to choice for patent litigation plaintiffs.

The complaint has and will continue to draw considerable attention.  It lays out the framework for a fascinating question:  under existing law, can OFAC act directly against a piece of technology such as open-source code?  Or, must OFAC pursue enforcement, through a more difficult, piece meal and time-consuming process, only against specific individuals and specific legal entities? Presumably, both sides will invoke broad policy-related and equity-related arguments regarding “privacy,” “transparency,” and the need to fight crime.  However, the key issue may come down to a more traditional and rather dry legal issue of parsing the meaning of statutory language.

Continue Reading  Civil Complaint Challenges OFAC’s Tornado Cash Sanctions

On September 8, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) published an extension of its notice and request for comment (the “Notice”) in the Federal Register regarding changes to the OCC’s Money Laundering Risk System (the “MLR System”)  The Notice indicates that the OCC is inviting greater scrutiny of customers and transactions involving

Department Focuses on Transfers of Virtual Currency

On August 8, 2022, the District of Columbia Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking (the Department”) issued a Bulletin on money transmission (the “Bulletin”).  The Department issued the Bulletin to ensure that parties “engaging in or planning to engage in money transmission with Bitcoin or other virtual currency