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

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

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) issued a letter yesterday stating that  “a national bank [and federal savings associations] may provide . . . cryptocurrency custody services on behalf of customers, including by holding the unique cryptographic keys associated with cryptocurrency. This letter also reaffirms the OCC’s position that national banks may provide permissible banking services to any lawful business they chose, including cryptocurrency business, so long as they effectively manage the risks and comply with applicable law.”  (“Letter”).

The key phrase above is “any lawful business.”  When a financial institution deals with crypto clients, whether the institution is actually dealing with a customer engaged in lawful activity is literally the question.  Oddly, therefore, the Letter is simultaneously groundbreaking and yet also nothing new.
Continue Reading OCC Announces that Federally-Chartered Banks and Thrifts May Provide Custody Services for Crypto Assets

OIG Audit Alleges DEA Ignored Oversight, Misunderstood Digital Currency, Didn’t Actually “Follow the Money,” and Overstated Accomplishments

A recent audit conducted by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”)’s Office of Inspector General (the “OIG”) revealed that the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) acted outside the scope of its authority while transacting tens of millions of dollars involving illicit activity during undercover operations from fiscal years 2015 to 2017.

The focus of the audit was a specific type of undercover operation known as Attorney General Exempted Operations (AGEOs). AGEOs are particularly risky because they are income-generating operations, designed to infiltrate and dismantle drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. Because of the sensitive nature of these investigations and the amount of money at stake, AGEOs are meant to be heavily supervised by the Attorney General (AG), other lawyers within DOJ and Congress.

The 72-page, partly redacted audit clearly found that the DEA repeatedly ignored its reporting policies, neglected its internal controls, and flagrantly violated the statutes governing AGEOs. This audit an important reminder that law enforcement agencies, even when pursuing the laudable goal of investing criminals through the often highly successful tool of undercover investigations, are still subject to legal limitations and standards, because agencies themselves are susceptible to fraud and abuse. This audit shows the importance of oversight and accountability, and reveals how bad actors sometimes can exist on both sides of an investigation.  Finally, the audit also suggests that the DEA often failed to pursue investigative leads and did not examine whether businesses and other third parties knowingly laundered the illicit money being transacted through AGEOs: once the target of the AGEO was “in the bag,” spin-off money laundering investigations did not occur.
Continue Reading DEA Accused of Ongoing Missteps in Undercover Operations

Travel These Days

Kenneth Blanco, Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), recently provided remarks about FinCEN’s “Travel Rule” at the first truly-virtual Consensus Blockchain Conference. The Travel Rule, which became effective in 1996, requires money services businesses (“MSBs”) – including cryptocurrency exchanges – to maintain identifying information on all parties in fund transfers of over $3,000 between financial institutions. As we discuss below, this principle creates real-world practical problems in the digital currency industry, in which it is not necessarily easy to obtain such information, unlike the traditional banking industry.

During his remarks, Director Blanco applauded the Financial Action Task Force’s (“FATF”) guidance issued last June, about which we have blogged here, instructing its 180 international member governments to similarly demand that virtual asset service providers (“VASPs”) collect “accurate originator information and required beneficiary information” on transactions of $1,000 or more. FATF’s pronouncement sent some shockwaves through the digital currency industry.

Notably, Director Blanco also lauded the efforts of cross-sector organizations and working groups to develop international standards and solutions to aid compliance with the Travel Rule. He urged for continued cooperation between FinCEN and the virtual currency industry to effectively implement Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) measures consistent with the Travel Rule.
Continue Reading FinCEN Director Blanco Urges Collaboration Across Virtual Currency Industry to Comply with Travel Rule

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

We are pleased to offer the latest episode in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Monitor Podcast series — a weekly podcast focusing on the consumer finance issues that matter most, from new product development and emerging technologies to regulatory compliance and enforcement and the ramifications of private litigation.

In this podcast, we examine two recent OCC

Regulatory Examination and Related Enforcement Also Highlights Perceived Risks of Banking Crypto Clients

The Department of the Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) recently issued a Consent Order against M.Y. Safra Bank arising from the bank’s decision to accept a variety of high-risk, Digital Asset Customers (“DACs”), allegedly without implementing the necessary Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) controls. Although the OCC did not impose a monetary penalty against the bank, it demanded that the bank implement and maintain a remarkably broad array of potentially costly and extremely detailed measures to strengthen its AML program. And, notably, the OCC specifically tasked the bank’s Board of Directors with implementing, overseeing, and reporting on these measures.

We describe here the OCC’s examination into and requirements imposed on M.Y. Safra Bank. The Consent Order is a reminder to the boards and management of all financial institutions that if they pursue novel and higher-risk customers – certainly, a potentially defensible business plan in our increasingly competitive business environment – then they absolutely have to adjust accordingly their AML compliance program and accompanying transaction monitoring to compensate for such increased risk. This is particularly true when those new customers employ novel technologies or business products which require a particularized ability to understand and address from an AML perspective. New, creative business lines are not necessarily bad – so long as the implementation of the AML compliance program is adjusted appropriately to identify and manage the new risk.

The Consent Order also is a reminder that, as the BSA/AML Examination Manual of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council states, “[t]he board of directors, acting through senior management, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the bank maintains an effective BSA/AML internal control structure,” and otherwise must create a culture of compliance.

This Consent Order and related OCC AML exam and enforcement issues – including the liability of not just institutions, but also the potential individual liability of AML in-house professionals – will be the topic of a forthcoming installment in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Finance Monitor Podcast by the firm’s AML Team. Please stay tuned our podcast, and read on here.
Continue Reading OCC Action Highlights Increased Accountability Facing Boards of Directors