Typical Virtual Currency Exchanges Do Not Require PA Money Transmitter Licenses

The Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities (“DoBS”) just released Guidance declaring that virtual currency, “including Bitcoin,” is not considered “money” under the Pennsylvania Money Transmission Business Licensing Law, otherwise known as the Money Transmitter Act (“MTA”). Therefore, according to the Guidance, the operator of the typical virtual currency exchange platform, kiosk, ATM or vending machine does not represent a money transmitter subject to Pennsylvania licensure.

This Guidance is important because it has implications beyond merely the burdens imposed by Pennsylvania law for obtaining a money transmitter license. As we previously have blogged (here, here and here), it is a federal crime under 18 U.S.C § 1960 to operate as an unlicensed money transmitter business, which is defined in part as a business “operated without an appropriate money transmitting license in a State where such operation is punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony under State law, whether or not the defendant knew that the operation was required to be licensed or that the operation was so punishable.” Thus, a state law violation can become a federal violation. Further, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has issued Guidance declaring that administrators or exchangers of digital currency – including popular crypto currencies such as Bitcoin – represent money transmitting businesses which must register with FinCEN under 31 U.S.C. § 5330 as money services businesses (“MSBs”), which in turn are governed by the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and related reporting and anti-money laundering compliance obligations. Moreover, a failure to register with FinCEN as a MSB when required also represents a separate violation of Section 1960. Drawing on the FinCEN guidance, federal courts have upheld the convictions of individuals who ran virtual currency exchanges and consequently were convicted of violating Section 1960 for operating unlicensed or unregistered money transmitter businesses.
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Are Proposed AML Regulations for Real Estate Closings and Settlements Soon to Follow?

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FINCEN”) announced on November 15 that it has renewed and revised its Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) that require U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind legal entities used in purchases of residential real estate

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, issued last month a Report, entitled The Internal Revenue Service’s Bank Secrecy Act Program Has Minimal Impact on Compliance, which sets forth a decidedly dim view of the utility and effectiveness of the current Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance efforts by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”).  The primary conclusions of the detailed Report are that (i) referrals by the IRS to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) for potential Title 31 penalty cases suffer lengthy delays and have little impact on BSA compliance; (ii) the IRS BSA Program spent approximately $97 million to assess approximately $39 million in penalties for Fiscal Years (FYs) 2014 to 2016; and (iii) although referrals regarding BSA violations were made to IRS Criminal Investigation (“IRS CI”), most investigations were declined and very few ultimately were accepted by the Department of Justice for prosecution.

Arguably, the most striking claim by the Report is that “Title 31 compliance reviews [by the IRS] have minimal impact on Bank Secrecy Act compliance because negligent violation penalties are not assessed.”

A primary take-away from the Report is that an examination program lacking actual enforcement power is, unsurprisingly, not very effective.  The Report also highlights some potential problems which beset the IRS BSA Program, which include lack of staffing, lack of planning and coordination, and delay. Although the Report’s findings clearly suggest that what the IRS BSA Program really needs are resources and enhanced enforcement power, the repeated allusions in the Report to a certain purposelessness of the current BSA examination regime nonetheless might help fuel the current debate regarding possible AML/BSA reform, with an eye towards curbing regulatory burden.

The Report made five specific recommendations to the IRS for remedial steps. We will focus on four of those recommendations, and the findings upon which they rest:

  • Coordinate with FINCEN on the authority to assert Title 31 penalties, or reprioritize BSA Program resources to more productive work;
  • Leverage the BSA Program’s Title 31 authority and annual examination planning in the development of the IRS’s virtual currency strategy;
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the newly implemented review procedures for FinCEN referrals; and
  • Improve the process for referrals to IRS CI.


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Director Blanco Emphasizes Investigatory Leads and Insights Into Illicit Activity Trends Culled from Nationwide BSA Data

As we just blogged, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) Director Kenneth Blanco recently touted the value of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) in the context of discussing anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement and regulatory  activity involving digital currency.  Shortly thereafter, Director Blanco again stressed the value of SARs, this time during remarks before the 11th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference and Expo, which caters to the AML concerns of the gaming industry.

It is difficult to shake the impression that Director Blanco is repeatedly and publically emphasizing the value of SARs, at least in part, in order to provide a counter-narrative to a growing reform movement — both in the United States and abroad — which: (i) questions the investigatory utility to governments and the mounting costs to the financial industry of the current SAR reporting regime, and (ii) has resulted in proposed U.S. legislation which would raise the minimum monetary thresholds for filing SARs and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”), and require a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined.
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Address Emphasizes Role of SARs in Fighting Illegal Activity, Including Drug Dealing Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Kenneth Blanco, the Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), discussed last week several issues involving virtual currency during an address before the “2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference” at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. Although some of his comments retread familiar ground, Blanco did offer some new insights, including the fact that FinCEN now receives over 1,500 Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) a month relating to virtual currency.
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Earlier this month, the District Court for the Central District of California imposed a prison sentence of one year and a day, with three years of supervised release, on defendant Theresa Lynn Tetley, who had pleaded guilty to: (i) the unlicensed operation of a digital currency exchange due to failure register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960(a) and (b)(1)(B), and (ii) a money laundering charge, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(3)(B), arising out of an undercover “sting” operation run by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation involving the attempt to conceal proceeds supposedly obtained by selling drugs.  Tetley also was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and forfeit 40 Bitcoin, $292,264 in cash, and 25 gold bars that were the alleged proceeds of her illegal activity.

The Court imposed a sentence significantly lower than the sentence of 30 months requested by the government, a recommendation which already was lower than the advisory sentencing range recommended by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) of 46 to 57 months in prison, as calculated by the U.S. Probation Office.

Tetley, a 50 year old woman living in Southern California, is a former stockbroker and real estate investor. She operated her digital currency exchange under the alias “Bitcoin Maven” for over three years, running an unregistered Bitcoin for cash exchange service.  According to the government, her service “fueled a black-market financial system” that “purposely and deliberately existed outside the regulated bank industry” and which catered to an alleged major darknet vendor of illegal narcotics.  According to the defense, however, the defendant “departed from a lifetime of integrity and good deeds and showed terrible judgment by failing to comply with federal registration requirements and buying bitcoins from individuals who represented themselves as engaged in criminal activity.”

In this post, we will drill into this sentencing and the parties’ respective positions, which provide a window into the prosecution and sentencing of alleged crimes involving both digital currency and undercover money laundering operations — and into the process for the sentencing of federal crimes in general, and how other factors which are entirely unrelated to the facts of the specific offense can be important.  Further, the Tetley case is interesting in part because it represents a sort of “hybrid” case — seen from time to time in money laundering cases involving professionals — which straddles both the typically very different realms of “pure” financial crime cases and illegal narcotics cases.  The government sentencing memorandum is here; the defense sentencing memorandum is here.
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The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced last week that it was disbanding the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, established under the Obama Administration. In its place, pursuant to an Executive Order, the DOJ plans to establish the Task Force on Market Integrity and Consumer Fraud (“Task Force”). The purpose—according to a DOJ press

On April 19, 2018, the European Parliament (“EP”) adopted the European Commission’s (the “Commission”) proposal for a Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (“AMLD5”) to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering through the European Union’s (“EU”) financial system. The Commission proposed this directive on July 26, 2016 to build upon and amend the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (“AMLD4”) – before all 28 member states even implemented AMLD4.

Under AMLD4, the EU sought to combat money laundering and terrorist financing by imposing registration and customer due diligence requirements on “obliged entities,” which it defined as banks and other financial and credit institutions. It also called for the creation of central registers comprised of information about who owns companies operating in the EU and directed that these registers be accessible to national authorities and obliged entities.  However, the European Central Bank warned that AMLD4 failed to effectively address recent trends in money laundering and terrorist financing, which have spanned multiple jurisdictions and fallen both within and outside of the traditional financial sector.  As a result, and in response to recent terrorist attacks in Europe and to the Panama Papers, the EP has adopted AMLD5 to more effectively keep pace with these recent trends.

Although AMLD5 contains several important provisions, including a proposed public registry of beneficial owners of legal entities, we focus here on how AMLD5 addresses, for the first time, the potential money laundering and terrorist financing risks posed by virtual currencies.
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But Noncustomer Plaintiffs May Face Uphill Battle Proving Digital Currency Exchange’s Actual Liability

Earlier this week, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, in an unpublished opinion, that Coinbase Inc., an online platform used for buying, selling, transferring, and storing digital currency, could not compel arbitration on a former customer of Cryptsy, a now-defunct cryptocurrency exchange, in his proposed class action suit alleging that Coinbase helped to launder $8 million of Cryptsy customers’ assets. Leidel v. Coinbase, Inc., Dkt. 17-12728.

In so holding, the Court found that the plaintiff’s allegations emanated not from the User Agreement between Coinbase and Cryptsy’s CEO, Paul Vernon, but from extra-contractual duties “allegedly” found in federal statutes and regulations, specifically the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  As we previously have blogged, courts have held that financial institutions generally do not owe a duty of care to a noncustomer and that no special duty of care arises from the duties and obligations set forth in the BSA absent a special relationship or contractual relationship. Moreover, there is no private right of action stemming from the BSA. Nor does the BSA define a financial institution’s standard of care for the purposes of a negligence claim.

Coinbase is registered as a Money Services Business with FinCEN, and is otherwise required to comply with the BSA. However, if courts treat Coinbase as it would any other financial institution (which we have no reason to believe that they would not), Plaintiff, having avoided the contractual arbitration provision, has an uphill battle to show that Coinbase had a duty of care to noncustomers to prevent AML failures.
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