A Complaint filed by the SEC in the Southern District of New York last week reminds us that in the area of securities law violations there is not much new under the sun. Even though the action against Eran Eyal and UnitedData, Inc. d/b/a “Shopin” involves the sale of digital assets, and the business of the issuer of those digital assets purportedly involves a blockchain application, the alleged wrongful conduct bears the hallmarks of a traditional securities offering scheme; one can substitute “unregistered securities” for the tokens offered, “private placement” for the token pre-sale, and a speculative venture – such as the “self-cooling can” that was the subject of an SEC offering fraud case years ago – for the blockchain applications touted by the issuer, and the Complaint is one that could have been drafted thirty years ago. To the extent that certain recent cases involving offerings of cryptocurrencies have presented novel applications of the securities laws and the Howey test of whether a digital currency is a security, this case isn’t one of them.
A description of the alleged misconduct makes the parallels clear. The SEC alleges that the issuer, Shopin, and its CEO, Mr. Eyal, conducted a fraudulent and unregistered offering of digital securities. The company’s business plan involved the creation of personal online shopping profiles that would track customers’ purchase histories across numerous online retailers, and link those profiles to the blockchain. However, Shopin allegedly never had a functioning product. The company’s pivot to the blockchain and rebranding resulted from its struggles to stay in business as a non-blockchain business.
The company apparently commenced its digital securities offering with a “pre-sale” of tokens through an unregistered offering, not unlike the private placement of securities that is often alleged as the first step in an offering fraud. Shopin’s initial sales of investment interests were made pursuant to a SAFT – a simple agreement for future tokens – in which initial investors paid bitcoin or ether in exchange for an interest in tokens at a discount that would be delivered once Shopin created the tokens at the completion of the public ICO. The proceeds of this pre-sale purportedly would be used to develop, launch and market the Shopin network, similar to the types of promises made in microcap or blind pool offerings. Unsold tokens in the pre-sale would go to insiders at Shopin and its advisors. The SEC determined that the Shopin tokes were investment contracts under the Howey test, because the purchasers invested money in the form of digital currency, the investors’ funds would be pooled in a common enterprise, and the defendants led the token purchasers to expect profits from their purchases because of the defendants’ efforts.
In its complaint, the SEC treated the token sale – which, again, was not registered under the securities laws – as a private placement subject to Regulation D, and alleged that the defendants failed to ensure that the purchasers of the tokens were accredited investors. Indeed, the SEC alleged that certain investors tried to satisfy the minimum investment requirements by pooling their investments in syndicates. This is a variant of the artifices employed by microcap issuers to artificially achieve a minimum offering level by making nominee purchases. The defendants also, in another resemblance to a microcap scheme, allegedly told investors they intended to have the Shopin tokens listed on digital-asset trading platforms – analogous to a promise to list penny stocks on an exchange – which purportedly would enable investors to realize profits on their positions by selling the tokens at a premium.
Having established that the ICO had the elements of a securities offering, the SEC described the material misrepresentations that the defendants made to investors: that the company had participated in successful pilot programs with prominent retailers; that the defendants had partnerships with numerous retailers; and that it was advised by a prominent individual in the digital asset field, who in fact had asked the company to remove his name as an advisor. Finally, and most serious, the SEC alleged that the defendants had misused portions of the offering proceeds, including for personal expenses, such as an individual’s rent, shopping and entertainment and – the type of salacious detail the SEC likes to include – to pay for a dating service.
Securities schemes tend to fall into certain patterns that involve the use of unregistered securities and misrepresentations to separate investors from their money, and schemes involving digital currency that resembles a security often fall into the same patterns. Perhaps recognizing that those patterns are recognizable to triers of fact and the public, the SEC alleges violations involving digital currency in similar terms. SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has repeatedly emphasized that the regulator will use its traditional tools and standards in treating sales of digital assets that conform to the definition of a security: for example, as he stated last year, “A token, a digital asset, where I give you my money and you go off and make a venture, and in return for giving you my money I say ‘you can get a return’ that is a security and we regulate that. We [the SEC] regulate the offering of that security and regulate the trading of that security.” Legitimate sales and offerings of digital currency might use a different vocabulary and analysis but, as the allegations in the case discussed here show, fraud is fraud.