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William Byrnes (Texas A&M) tax & compliance articles

FINCEN Director speaks out on BITCOIN and other virtual currencies

Posted by William Byrnes on March 22, 2014

The director of FINCEN, Jennifer Shasky Calvery, spoke about virtual currencies, specifically naming BITCOIN, in her remarks on March 18, 2014 to a conference on anti money laundering.  I excerpt pertinent remarks related to virtual currency.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) published earlier this year two administrative rulings, providing additional information on whether a person’s conduct related to convertible virtual currency brings them within the Bank Secrecy Act’s (BSA) definition of a money transmitter. The first ruling stated that, to the extent a user creates or “mines” a convertible virtual currency solely for a user’s own purposes, the user is not a money transmitter under the BSA. The second ruling stated that a company purchasing and selling convertible virtual currency as an investment exclusively for the company’s benefit is not a money transmitter.

The rulings further interpret FinCEN’s March 18, 2013 Guidance Application of FinCEN’s Regulations to Persons Administering, Exchanging, or Using Virtual Currencies to address these business models. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued the March 18, 2013 interpretive guidance to clarify the applicability of the regulations implementing the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to persons creating, obtaining, distributing, exchanging, accepting, or transmitting virtual currencies.

Definition of Currency and Virtual Currency

FinCEN’s regulations define currency (also referred to as “real” currency) as “the coin and paper money of the United States or of any other country that [i] is designated as legal tender and that [ii] circulates and [iii] is customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in the country of issuance.” In contrast to real currency, “virtual” currency is a medium of exchange that operates like a currency in some environments, but does not have all the attributes of real currency. In particular, virtual currency does not have legal tender status in any jurisdiction. This guidance addresses “convertible” virtual currency. This type of virtual currency either has an equivalent value in real currency, or acts as a substitute for real currency.

Excerpts of Remarks

“In the case of Bitcoin, it has been publicly reported that its users processed transactions worth approximately $8 billion over the twelve-month period preceding October 2013; however, this measure may be artificially high due to the extensive use of automated layering in many Bitcoin transactions.”

“By way of comparison, according to information reported publicly, in 2012 Western Union made remittances totaling approximately $81 billion; PayPal processed approximately $145 billion in online payments; the Automated Clearing House Network processed $36.9 trillion in transactions; and Bank of America processed $244.4 trillion in wire transfers.”

“This relative volume of transactions becomes important when you consider that, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the best estimate for the amount of all global criminal proceeds available for laundering through the financial system in 2009 was $1.6 trillion.”

“Exactly one year ago today, FinCEN issued interpretive guidance to bring clarity and regulatory certainty for businesses and individuals engaged in money transmitting services and offering virtual currencies.”

“In the simplest of terms, FinCEN’s guidance explains that administrators or exchangers of virtual currencies must register with FinCEN, and institute certain recordkeeping, reporting, and AML program control measures, unless an exception to these requirements applies. The guidance also explains that those who use virtual currencies exclusively for common personal transactions – like buying goods or services online – are users, and not subject to regulatory requirements under the BSA.”

“In all cases, FinCEN employs an activity-based test to determine when someone dealing with virtual currency qualifies as a money transmitter. The guidance clarifies definitions and expectations to ensure that businesses engaged in such activities are aware of their regulatory responsibilities, including registering appropriately.”

“Furthermore, FinCEN closely coordinates with its state regulatory counterparts to encourage appropriate application of FinCEN guidance as part of the states’ separate AML compliance oversight of financial institutions.”

“Earlier this year, FinCEN expanded upon this guidance, issuing two administrative rulings. The rulings provide additional information on our regulatory coverage of certain activities related to convertible virtual currency. In both rulings, the convertible virtual currency at issue was the crypto-currency, Bitcoin, and we were clarifying how users who obtain virtual currency only for their own use or investment are not money transmitters.”

“I am also pleased to report that since FinCEN issued its guidance, dozens of virtual currency exchangers have registered with FinCEN, and some virtual currency exchangers are beginning to comply with reporting requirements and are filing SARs. They appear to be appreciative of the need to develop controls to make themselves resilient to abuse by bad actors.”

And they are also coming to terms with the fact that as administrators and exchangers they must obtain, verify, and store key information about the senders and recipients of virtual currency and, under certain circumstances, pass that information on to other administrators or exchangers involved in the transaction.

“This last issue is key. Simply put, these exchangers and administrators, like other money transmitters, are subject to the so-called Travel Rule. Thus, they have to incorporate into their business models the same transparency with respect to funds transfers as other money transmitters.”

“While we are encouraged by these industry efforts to increase transparency in this space, I do, however, remain concerned that there appear to be many domestic virtual currency exchangers that are not fulfilling their recordkeeping and reporting requirements.  Those who do not comply with these rules should understand that their actions will have  consequences. Not only are they subject to civil monetary penalties, but the knowing failure to register a money transmitting business with FinCEN – or with state authorities where there is a state licensing requirement – is a federal criminal offense.”

book cover

LexisNexis’ Money Laundering, Asset Forfeiture and Recovery and Compliance: A Global Guide – This eBook is designed to provide the compliance officer accurate analyses of the AML/CTF Financial and Legal Intelligence, law and practice in the nations of the world with the most current references and resources. The eBook is organized around five main themes: 1. Money Laundering Risk and Compliance; 2. The Law of Anti-Money Laundering and Compliance; 3. Criminal and Civil Forfeiture; 4. Compliance and 5. International Cooperation.

Each chapter is made up of five parts. Part I, “Introduction,” begins with the analysis of money laundering risks and compliance with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and then concludes with the country’s rating based on the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) of the U.S. State Department.  Part II, “Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorist Financing (AML/CTF)” and Part III, “Criminal and Civil Forfeiture,” evaluate the judicial and legislative structures of the country. Given the increasing global dimension of AML/CTF activities, these sections give special attention to how a country has created statutes, decisions, policies and the judicial enforcement procedures needed to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. Part IV, “Compliance,” examines the most critical processes for the prevention and detection of money laundering and terrorist financing. This section reflects on the practical elements that should be in place so that financial institutions can comply with AML/CTF requirements; these are categorized into the development and implementation of internal controls, policies and procedures. Part V, “International Cooperation,” reviews the compilation of international laws and treaties between countries working together to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.  As these unlawful activities can occur in any given country, it is important to identify the international participants who are cooperating to develop methods to obstruct these criminal activities. 

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