House Committee Members Express Concerns About Operation Choke Point

On April 8 the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing with the general counsels of the federal banking agencies regarding, among other things, Operation Choke Point, the federal enforcement operation reportedly intended to cut off from the banking system certain lenders and merchants allegedly engaged in unlawful activities. Numerous committee members from both sides of the aisle raised concerns about Operation Choke Point, as well as the federal government’s broader pressure on banks over their relationships with nonbank financial service providers, including money service businesses, nonbank lenders, and check cashers. Committee members asserted that the operation is impacting lawful nonbank financial service providers, who are losing access to the banking system and, in turn, are unable to offer needed services to the members’ constituents. The FDIC’s Richard Osterman repeatedly stated that Operation Choke Point is a DOJ operation and the FDIC’s participation is limited to providing certain information and resources upon request. Mr. Osterman also asserted that the FDIC is not attempting to, and does not intend to, prohibit banks from offering products or services to nonbank financial service providers operating within the law, and that the FDIC’s guidance is clear that banks are neither prohibited from nor encouraged to provide services to certain businesses, provided they properly manage their risk. Similarly, the OCC’s Amy Friend stated that the OCC wants to ensure that banks conduct due diligence and implement appropriate controls, but that the OCC is not prohibiting banks from offering services to lawful businesses. She stated the OCC has found that some banks have made a business decision to terminate relationships with some nonbank providers rather than implement additional controls.

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South Dakota Adopts Uniform Real Property Electronic Reporting Act

On March 31, South Dakota enacted SB 68, becoming the 30th jurisdiction to adopt the Uniform Real Property Electronic Recording Act (URPERA) with the enactment. URPERA, promulgated by the Uniform Law Commission in 2004, gives county clerks and recorders the legal authority to prepare for electronic recording of real property instruments. Among other things, SB 68 (i) establishes that, for any law requiring that a document be an original as a condition for recording, an electronic document satisfying certain specific conditions will qualify; (ii) establishes an electronic recording commission to adopt uniform standards to implement procedures for recording electronic documents with the register of deeds; and (iii) requires the register of deeds to comply with standards set by the commission, including accepting electronic documents for recording. The law takes effect July 1, 2014.

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Texas Issues Licensing Guidance For Virtual Currency Firms

On April 3, the Texas Department of Banking issued a supervisory memorandum on the regulatory treatment of virtual currencies under the Texas Money Services Act. The memorandum states that money transmission licensing determinations regarding transactions with decentralized virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, referred to by the Banking Department as cryptocurrencies, turn on whether cryptocurrencies should be considered “money or monetary value” under the Money Services Act. The memorandum concludes that cryptocurrencies currently cannot be considered “money or monetary value” because they are not currencies as that word is defined in the Money Services Act, and a unit of cryptocurrency is not a claim under the Act. However, when a cryptocurrency transaction includes sovereign currency, it may constitute money transmission depending on how the sovereign currency is handled. The memorandum provides examples of common types of transactions involving cryptocurrencies and whether they would constitute money transmission subject to state licensing requirements. For example, the Department states that exchanging cryptocurrency for sovereign currency through a third party exchanger is generally money transmission, and that exchange of cryptocurrency for sovereign currency through an automated machine is usually but not always money transmission. The Department advises that cryptocurrency businesses conducting money transmission must comply with state licensing requirements. The Department further advises that (i) a money transmitter that conducts virtual currency transactions is subject to a $500,000 minimum net worth requirement; (ii) a license holder may not include virtual currency assets in calculations for its permissible investments; and (iii) license applicants who handle virtual currencies in the course of their money transmission activities must submit a current third party security audit of their relevant computer systems.

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IRS Will Treat Convertible Virtual Currency as Property, Not Currency

On March 25, the IRS issued a notice in which it stated that, for federal tax purposes, bitcoins and other convertible virtual currencies are treated as property rather than currency. The IRS added that a third party that settles payments made in virtual currency on behalf of a substantial number of unrelated merchants that accept virtual currency from their customers may be a third party settlement organization (TPSO) and thus subject to IRS information reporting requirements. The IRS addressed several questions related to the use of virtual currency in the notice but acknowledged that there may be other questions regarding virtual currency not addressed that warrant consideration. The IRS is therefore accepting public comment on other types or aspects of virtual currency transactions that should be addressed by the IRS in future guidance. The notice does not specify a deadline for submitting such comments.

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Treasury Officials Detail Approach To Virtual Currency

This week, Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen and FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery outlined the Treasury Department’s approach to regulation of virtual currency. Mr. Cohen acknowledged that large scale adoption of virtual currency is possible, but asserted that the long term viability of virtual currency is dependent on establishing consumer and investor protections, and addressing the risk that virtual currency can be used to facilitate illicit finance. Although Treasury does not currently see widespread use of virtual currencies in terrorism financing or sanctions evasion, Mr. Cohen highlighted those risks in addition to money laundering risk posed by the anonymous nature of virtual currencies. Treasury’s basic policy approach is to seek a balance between allowing new technologies to flourish while ensuring systems are sufficiently transparent to protect the U.S. economy. Mr. Cohen made clear that Treasury will err on the side of transparency when necessary. Currently, Treasury and FinCEN are focused on “the moment ‘real’ money is exchanged into virtual currency, and when virtual currency is exchanged back into ‘real’ money.” Mr. Cohen believes that such an approach is sufficient given current adoption levels, but added that Treasury will need to consider whether to  apply “cash-like” reporting requirements to virtual currency when it appears that “daily financial life can be conducted for long stretches fully ‘within’ a virtual currency universe.” Treasury is advancing its objectives and approach internationally through the Financial Action Task Force, which Treasury anticipates will publish an updated paper on virtual currency definitions and risks later this year. Finally, both officials announced that, for the first time, Treasury will include a member of the virtual currency community as part of the Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group, which advises Treasury on anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing policy.

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IRS Revises Handbook For Authorized E-File Providers

On March 11, the IRS updated Publication 1345, Handbook for Authorized IRS e-file Providers of Individual Income Tax Returns, with new electronic signature guidance for Forms 8878 and 8879 (IRS e-file Signature Authorization). The update includes guidance on currently acceptable (i) electronic signature methods; (ii) identity verification requirements; and (iii) electronic record requirements.

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New York DFS Seeking Virtual Currency Exchange Applications

On March 11, the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) issued an order calling for “proposals and applications in connection with the establishment of virtual currency exchanges located in the State of New York.” Proposals can be submitted immediately. Approved exchanges would be subject to any eventual virtual currency regulatory framework established by the DFS, which the DFS now states will be proposed no later than the end of June. The DFS also announced it will “in the near future” consider applications for other virtual currency firms beyond exchanges.

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Virtual Currency Trade Group Announces Board, Annual Meeting

On March 8, the Digital Asset Transfer Authority (DATA), a trade group launched last year and tasked by its members with “leading regulatory, best practices and consumer protection initiatives for companies in the emerging field of digital assets,” announced the election of a board of directors and its inaugural annual meeting. The group explains that digital assets include digital, asset-backed and cryptographic currencies like Bitcoin, Ripple, and Ven, as well as “the emerging ecosystem of payment innovations, fiscal tools, and P2P products enabled by these new Internet technologies.”

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State Banking Associations Object To Senators’ Request For Increased Bank Payment System Security Oversight

On March 5, 53 state bankers associations sent a letter to Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen defending banks’ efforts to secure consumer financial data and highlighting the responsibilities of other parties, in particular merchants, to do the same. The banking associations, representing bankers in every state and Puerto Rico, took issue with a  letter Democratic Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Al Franken (D-MN) sent last month to the Federal Reserve Board Chair seeking information about the Board’s oversight of card issuers’ fraud prevention policies and recommending that the Board do more to verify the effectiveness of such policies. The banking associations contend that the Senators’ letter is a “thinly veiled effort to once again advance the regulation of interchange under the guise of current concerns over data security,” and criticize the Senators for converting a discussion about security responsibilities into one about interchange fees.

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Federal Reserve Board Chair Testifies On Enforcement Policy, Virtual Currency Oversight

On February 27, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Janet Yellen made her first appearance as Chair before the Senate Banking Committee. During the course of the question and answer session, Ms. Yellen responded to a recent letter from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) that encouraged the Federal Reserve Board to play a larger role in major supervisory and enforcement decisions, as opposed to delegating most examination and settlement responsibilities to staff.  Chairman Yellen generally agreed that the Board itself should play a larger part in supervision and enforcement and stated that she “fully expects” the Board to make changes to its policies. She added that with regard to legislation recently introduced by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would require greater transparency in federal settlements, the Federal Reserve Board intends to look carefully at what it discloses about enforcement actions and settlements and will try to provide more disclosure. Among the numerous other topics covered during the hearing, Chairman Yellen also addressed virtual currency issues, stating the Federal Reserve Board currently has no authority to oversee virtual currency. Her comments followed a letter sent on February 26, 2014 by Banking Committee member Joe Manchin (D-WV) to federal financial and enforcement authorities asking for a complete ban on Bitcoin in the United States. Ms. Yellen stated that while Congress should consider the appropriate legal framework for virtual currency, “there’s no intersection at all in any way between Bitcoin and banks that the Federal Reserve has the ability to supervise and regulate. So the Federal Reserve simply does not have authority to supervise or regulate Bitcoin in any way.”

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State Regulators Form Emerging Payments Task Force

On February 20, the CSBS announced the formation of an Emerging Payments Task Force to study changes in payment systems—including virtual currencies and other innovations—to determine the potential impact on consumer protection, state law, and banks and nonbank entities chartered or licensed by the states. The Task Force is comprised of nine state regulators, including New York State Department of Financial Services Superintendent Lawsky who has recently indicated New York will seek to become the first state to directly address virtual currency through new regulations. The Task Force will be chaired by David Cotney, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Division of Banks, who testified on these issues on behalf of the CSBS last fall before the Senate Banking Committee. The CSBS stated that the Task Force will “take a comprehensive approach to studying the changing payment systems” by engaging with a broad range of federal, state, and industry stakeholders to understand how new entrants and technologies affect the stability of payment systems and the broader financial marketplace and “to develop ideas for connecting the emerging payments landscape to the financial regulatory fabric.”

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New York DFS Identifies Potential Next Steps for Virtual Currency Regulation

On February 11, at an event on the future of virtual currency, New York DFS Superintendent Benjamin M. Lawsky reiterated his intention to move forward with a virtual currency rulemaking this year as the DFS is “increasingly coming to the conclusion that simply applying our existing money transmission regulations to virtual currency firms is not sufficient.” Mr. Lawsky’s remarks follow a recent two-day DFS hearing regarding the potential state regulation of virtual currency. According to his most recent remarks, the proposal may include a specifically tailored BitLicense that adapts existing money transmission rules to virtual currency. In addition, the proposed rules may, among other things, include “a strong set of specially tailored, model consumer disclosure rules” that could address, for example, the irreversible nature of most transactions, the need to keep private keys private, and potential volatility. The DFS proposal may also seek to address capital, collateral, net worth, and investment requirements. Mr. Lawsky explained that the DFS would like more input about whether it should require licensed firms to only use public ledgers and whether to ban or restrict the use of tumblers by licensed firms.

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FinCEN Releases Additional Guidance Related To Virtual Currency Mining, Software, And Investment Activity

On January 30, FinCEN issued two rulings related to virtual currency mining and virtual currency software development and investment activity.  The guidance clarifies FinCEN’s previous convertible virtual currency guidance.  In FIN-2014-R001, FinCEN explains that miners of Bitcoins, whether individuals or corporations, who are engaging in mining solely for the miner’s own personal purpose are “users” of virtual currency and not MSBs under FinCEN’s previous guidance.  FinCEN found this to be the case even if the miner from time to time must convert the mined Bitcoins into real currency or another convertible virtual currency so long as the conversion is solely for the miner’s own purposes and not as a business service performed for the benefit of another.  In FIN-2014-R002, FinCEN states that a company that develops its own software to purchase virtual currency for its own account and to resell the virtual currency at the company’s own discretion and based on the company’s own investment decisions also is not an MSB under FinCEN’s prior guidance.

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New York DFS Hearing Considers Potential Regulation Of Virtual Currency

This week, New York State Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky presided over a two-day hearing regarding emerging virtual currencies and the appropriate role of regulation. The hearing was the next step in an inquiry announced last August, and was held as the NY DFS considers developing a state license specific to virtual currency that would subject operators to state oversight. The panels featured the views of private investors, virtual currency firms, regulatory experts, and law enforcement officials. From our view inside the room, the most prominent, theme to emerge is that regulators will need to strike a balance between protecting the public interest—both from a consumer protection standpoint and with regard to the potential for criminal activity—while allowing emerging virtual currency technologies to develop, evolve, and thrive. Read more…

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Special Alert: FHA Announces It Will Accept Electronically-Signed Mortgage Documents

On January 30, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 2014-03, announcing that FHA will now treat electronic signatures as equivalent to handwritten signatures for certain mortgage documents. The announcement sets forth FHA’s first authorization of electronic signatures on mortgage documents (other than certain third party documents – see Mortgagee Letter 2010-14) and applies to FHA Single Family Title I and II forward mortgages and Home Equity Conversion Mortgages. The announcement is consistent with other government agency initiatives to promote a more streamlined and efficient mortgage process for consumers, particularly through the use of technology such as electronic signatures. Earlier this month, for example, the CFPB issued a request for information containing a questionnaire focused on improving the home loan closing process. “By extending our acceptance of electronic signatures on the majority of single family documents, we are bringing our requirements into alignment with common industry practices,” said FHA Commissioner Carol Galante. “This extension will not only make it easier for lenders to work with FHA, it also allows for greater efficiency in the home-buying and loss mitigation process.”

The announcement indicates that, effective immediately, FHA will accept electronic signatures on (i) any documents associated with servicing or loss mitigation; (ii) any documents associated with the filing of a claim for FHA insurance benefits; (iii) the HUD Real Estate Owned Sales Contract and related addenda; and (iv) all documents included in the case binder for mortgage insurance except the Note.  FHA will begin accepting electronic signatures on the Note for forward mortgages, but not Home Equity Conversion Mortgages, on December 31, 2014. FHA already allows electronic signatures on documents originated and signed outside of the lender’s control, such as the sales contract.

FHA requires lenders that accept electronic signatures to comply with the ESIGN Act (15 U.S.C. §§ 7001-7006). The ESIGN Act mandates that the signer be presented the document before the electronic signature is obtained, that the document is true and correct at the time it is signed, and that the signature is attached to, or logically associated with, the documents being electronically signed. Lenders must also take steps to confirm the identity of the signer as a party to the transaction and to establish that the signature may be attributed to the purported signer. Lenders must have systems in place to ensure that information generated to confirm the identity of signers is secure and that electronically signed documents cannot be altered without detection.

In addition to citing the requirements of ESIGN, FHA sets some more specific requirements for certain elements of the signing process. These include requirements for establishing attribution of the signature and authentication of the signer.  FHA also sets requirements for maintaining audit logs, computer systems, controls and documentation, and making them available for FHA inspection.

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Questions regarding the matters discussed in this alert may be directed to any of the lawyers in our Electronic Signatures and Records practice, or to any other BuckleySandler attorney with whom you have consulted in the past.

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