Last week, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) backed up its strong public statements about enforcing the anti-money laundering (AML) laws with respect to cryptocurrency by bringing an enforcement action against an individual for violating the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).
FinCEN, a bureau within the U.S. Department of Treasury tasked with safeguarding the financial system from illicit use and combating money laundering, has not been shy about expressing interest in blockchain and cryptocurrency issues. In a recent speech, Director Kenneth A. Blanco explained that “FinCEN has been at the forefront of ensuring that companies doing business in virtual currency meet their AML/CFT obligations regardless of the manner in which they do business.” He added that FinCEN “will continue to work with the SEC and CFTC to ensure compliance in this space and will not hesitate to take action when we see disregard for obligations under the BSA.” But FinCEN enforcement actions involving cryptocurrency activities have been infrequent. Since its landmark action against Ripple Labs in 2015, FinCEN’s only enforcement proceeding in this area was brought in 2017 against virtual currency exchanger BTC-e and its owner.
That changed last week when FinCEN assessed a civil penalty against Eric Powers, a “peer-to-peer exchanger” of virtual currency, for violations of the BSA. In agreeing to pay a $35,350 penalty, Powers admitted that he willfully violated the BSA by failing to (i) register as a money services business (MSB), (ii) implement written policies and procedures for ensuring BSA compliance, and (iii) report suspicious transactions and currency transactions.
The Powers action does not provide much insight into one of the more difficult questions a company whose business involves virtual currency faces: whether it qualifies as an MSB that is subject to the BSA. FinCEN guidance from 2013 indicates that the BSA generally will apply to “exchangers” and “administrators” of convertible virtual currencies. Unlike many virtual currency companies, Powers seems to have clearly fit within FinCEN’s definition of an exchanger – through online postings he advertised his intention to purchase and sell bitcoin for others, and he completed purchases and sales by delivering or receiving currency in person, through the mail, or via wire transfer. But in establishing that the BSA applied to Powers, FinCEN leans heavily on the 2013 guidance. That guidance in many ways is imprecise or unclear and it continues to create uncertainty as blockchain technology and virtual currency business models continue to evolve. But the Powers assessment confirms that other entities operating in the cryptocurrency space nevertheless should continue to evaluate their BSA obligations through the lens of that guidance to the extent possible.
Unlike those assessed against Ripple and BTC-e, the financial penalty assessed against Powers was relatively small. This might be because Powers was a natural person (potentially with a lesser “ability to pay” than larger incorporated entities), conducted a fairly small-scale operation, and paid larger sums as part of an earlier civil forfeiture action brought by the Maryland U.S. Attorney. While those considerations warranted a lesser penalty in Powers’s case, FinCEN very well could apply the same law, guidance, and reasoning underlying the assessment to more extensive cryptocurrency operations. Director Blanco’s recent comments regarding FinCEN’s priorities and this latest enforcement action suggest that FinCEN likely will do just that. In other words, we wouldn’t be surprised if FinCEN brings more enforcement actions – levying more severe penalties – to enforce the BSA in the cryptocurrency industry. Persons and entities operating in this industry thus should focus on assessing their potential BSA obligations early and take affirmative steps to comply if required.