U.S. Marshals to Auction 50,000 Bitcoins Seized During Investigation of Silk Road Operator

On February 18, the U.S. Marshals Service announced that it will auction 50,000 bitcoins seized from wallet files found on computer hardware belonging to Ross Ulbricht, who was recently convicted in connection with his operation and ownership of Silk Road, a website that functioned as a criminal marketplace for illegal goods and services. The auction is scheduled for March 5. On February 4, a federal jury in the Southern District of New York found Ulbricht guilty on seven federal charges. In the court’s January 27, 2014 Stipulation and Order for Interlocutory Sale of Bitcoins, the Federal Government and Ulbricht agreed that “the Computer Hardware Bitcoins [were] to be liquidated or sold by the Government…”

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New York DFS Revises BitLicense Framework for Virtual Currency Regulation

On February 4, New York DFS proposed revisions to its anticipated regulation of virtual currency companies. The DFS originally released a proposal on July 17, 2014, and on December 18, Superintendent Lawsky delivered remarks stating the DFS was revising its proposal to provide more flexibility to virtual currency startups. The revised proposal (i) gives DFS the option of renewing a conditional BitLicense if the virtual currency firm continues to meet operating criteria; and (ii) removes previous language stating that a firm operating a BitLicense is required to obtain addresses and transaction data for all parties to a virtual currency transaction. Regardless of the changes, virtual currency firms still must meet strict standards for consumer protection and anti-money laundering requirements.

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Digital Insights & Trends: What Keeps You Up At Night (Round 2) – Data INsecurity

We’re still wide awake, focusing on what keeps us (and our financial institution clients) up at night. Let’s pick up where we left off following our December webinar, but this time address data INsecurity from the perspective of its “other” victims, i.e., consumers. Last months’ webinar reviewed the benefits of risk-based approaches to organizational cybersecurity frameworks and identified potential obstacles to their achievement. Today, we’re thinking about another risk of cybersecurity breakdowns – the loss of consumer confidence. This risk threatens companies as surely as the regulatory, media and legal fallout.

Despite the proliferation of data breach notification and consumer financial privacy laws, data-breach-fueled identity theft is increasing. A recent report of the National Consumers League & Javelin Strategy reveals that consumer fraud victims don’t discriminate between business organizations and financial institutions when assigning blame for data breaches. Rather, they avoid doing business with all organizations involved. Ironically, nearly one-third of fraud victims take no action to prevent further fraud, even when they’ve been notified that their data has been compromised. The majority of consumer victims, according to the NCL/Javelin report, say both businesses and FIs should be held accountable, and want to be able to sue the breached companies. An even greater majority think the federal government should protect them — and lawmakers are listening. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), for example, favors a national security breach notification law. Read more…

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Special Alert: CSBS Issues Policy, Draft Model Regulatory Framework, and Request for Comment Regarding State Regulation of Virtual Currency

On December 16, 2014, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (“CSBS”) issued a Policy on State Regulation of Virtual Currency (the “Policy”), Draft Model Regulatory Framework, and a request for public comment regarding the regulation of virtual currency.  The Policy and Draft Model Regulatory Framework were issued through the work of the CSBS Emerging Payments Task Force (the “Task Force”). The Task Force was established to explore the nexus between state supervision and the development of payment systems and is seeking to identify where there are consistent regulatory approaches among states.

The Policy

As a result of its work to date, the Policy recommends that “activities involving third party control of virtual currency, including for the purposes of transmitting, exchanging, holding, or otherwise controlling virtual currency, should be subject to state licensure and supervision.” The Policy states that state regulators have determined certain activities involving virtual currency raise concerns in three areas: consumer protection, marketplace stability, and law enforcement. Read more…

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Digital Insights & Trends: Can Mobile Payments Solve the “Unbanked” Problem?

Margo Tank, Head of Digital Commerce PracticeWhile 2014 is closing out with worldwide cyber-threats, at BuckleySandler, we’re going to close out our first year publishing Digital Insights & Trends on an optimistic note. Looking forward, we welcome a mobile payments development that could be cause for cyber-celebration in 2015 and the years to follow.

As financial services lawyers, we usually navigate the regulatory concerns of e-commerce providers in the financial sector for a clientele of banks, other financial institutions and technology companies. But we are keenly aware that access to financial services is vital even for those without access to traditional banks. This reality, referred to as the “unbanked” problem, has preoccupied financial service providers (and consumer advocates, and policymakers) for decades. Mobile payment technology may be the solution. Read more…

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Digital Insights & Trends: “Digital Assets” … or Liabilities?

Margo Tank, Head of Digital Commerce Practice

Delaware’s Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act (H.B. 345) makes Delaware the latest state to regulate access to “digital assets” after death. Unless the account-holder instructs otherwise, legally appointed fiduciaries will: (1) have the same access to digital assets as they have always had to tangible assets, and (2) the same duty to comply with the account-holder’s instructions. In short, the personal representative or guardian of a digital account-holder can access the emails, documents, audio, video, images, social media content, computer programs, software licenses, usernames and passwords created on the deceased’s digital devices or stored electronically. This access could be very helpful, or extremely problematic, depending on what the digital records reveal. Read more…

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New Bitcoin Firms May Get Transitional License in New York

On November 2, New York Superintendent Lawsky delivered remarks at the Money 20/20 Conference on the state’s virtual currency and Bitcoin regulation. In October, Lawsky publicly stated that, as a result of the comments received on New York’s proposed BitLicense framework, there would be important changes made to the July 17 proposal. This week, on behalf of the NYDFS, Lawsky announced that additional changes are being considered to address “concern about the compliance costs of regulation on new or fledging virtual currency enterprises.” Specifically, Lawsky introduced the concept of a Transitional BitLicense, which would allow certain small, money transmitting startups to begin operating without huge compliance costs. Lawsky noted four main factors the NYDFS would consider when deciding whether or not to grant a Transitional BitLicense: (i) the nature and scope of the business and the associated risks for consumers; (ii) projected transactional and business volume; (iii) registration status as a Money Services Business with FinCEN; and (iv) previously established mitigating risk controls.

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FinCEN Rules Proposed Virtual Currency Exchange, Bitcoin Payment System Subject to BSA

On October 27, FinCEN issued two administrative rulings to companies seeking guidance on whether they must register as MSBs and be subject to the required reporting, recordkeeping, and monitoring obligations. In its first letter, a company queried whether its plans to set up a virtual currency trading and booking platform, similar to a traditional securities or commodities exchange, would make it subject to FinCEN regulations. FinCEN responded that the proposed virtual trading platform would be classified as an MSB. As a result, the company would have to register as an MSB as defined under the BSA. In its second ruling, a company asked whether a bitcoin payment system would be subject to the agency’s regulations. The payment system would accept customers’ credit card payments and transfer the payments to merchants in the form of bitcoin. FinCEN ruled that if the company sets up the payment system, the company would be classified as a money transmitter, and subject to BSA regulations, because “it engages as a business in accepting and converting the customers’ real currency into virtual currency for transmission to the merchant.”

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Department Of Treasury Continues Work To Support Money Transmitters

On October 8, the Treasury released a statement regarding its continued efforts to support the legitimate use of money transmitters by fostering financial inclusion and financial transparency, while simultaneously addressing its vulnerabilities of money laundering and terrorist financing. Highlighting its progress in the last 15 years, the statement notes that “record volumes of remittances are being transmitted through legitimate and transparent channels.” Looking forward, the treasury will improve upon its efforts to increase banking access for money transmitters by (i) making its expectations for banks clearer; (ii) improving AML/CFT controls and compliance; (iii) heightening AMC/CFT oversight; and (iv) reaching out to financial institutions and their customers. Finally, the Treasury is working with federal banking agencies to ensure that not all money transmitters are treated as high risk by banking institutions. Ensuring that these efforts are both domestic and international, the Treasury is working with the United Kingdom, the World Bank, and G-20.

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Digital Insights and Trends: Can Bitcoin Support Money Laundering Charges?

Amy Davine Kim, Digital Commerce CounselUpdated Oct. 7, 2014

Bitcoin owners and exchange operators are coming face-to-face with prosecutors focused on money laundering crimes, leading to novel legal arguments about whether the virtual currency is money, or sufficiently “money-like” to support charges of money laundering and other financial crimes. This comes in contrast to a determination by the IRS, for one, stating that virtual currency such as Bitcoin is treated as property for federal tax purposes, and by FinCEN and FATF, that it does not have all the attributes of real currency and does not have legal tender status. Within this context, FinCEN’s Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery recently told Coindesk that the agency is focused on the bad actors, and not the new technology itself.

As reported last month in Digital Commerce & Payments, a New York Federal District Court concluded in Faiella et al. v. United States, that Bitcoin is “money,” denying a defendant’s motion to dismiss a money laundering charge. The defendant was charged with unlawfully operating an unlicensed money transmitting business, but unsuccessfully tried to dismiss the charge because Bitcoin is not “money.” The court said Bitcoin “clearly qualifies as ‘money’,” as it “can be easily purchased in exchange for ordinary currency, acts as a denominator of value, and is used to conduct financial transactions.” Read more…

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Eastern District Court Of Texas Enjoins Bitcoin Investment Scheme And Orders Founder To Pay Civil Penalty

On September 18, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas held that the defendant’s bitcoin investment program was a Ponzi scheme, and enjoined the founder and the investment program from violating Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Sections 5 and 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933. S.E.C. v. Shavers, No. 4:13-CV-416 (E.D. Tex. Sep. 18, 2014). The court ruled that the founder knowingly and intentionally operated the bitcoin investment program as a sham and Ponzi scheme by repeatedly making misrepresentations, both to investors and potential investors alike, concerning: (i) the use of their bitcoins; (ii) how he planned to generate the promised returns; and (iii) the safety of the investments. The founder used new bitcoins received from investors to make payments on outstanding bitcoin investments, and diverted investors’ bitcoins for his own personal use. The court granted Plaintiff’s uncontested motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, for default judgment, and, in addition to the injunctions, ordered Defendants jointly and severally liable for disgorgement of approximately $40 million in profits, and ordered each Defendant to pay civil penalties in the amount of $150,000.

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Eastern District Court of Texas Holds that Bitcoin Investments Are Securities

On August 26, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas held that the Bitcoin investments at issue are “investment contracts” and “securities” within the meaning of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Exchange Act of 1934. S.E.C. v. Shavers, et al., No. 4:13-CV-416, (E.D. Tex. Aug. 26, 2014). The Court found that the Bitcoin investments in the case satisfy the “investment of money” prong established by the Supreme Court in S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey & Co., 328 U.S. 293, 298-99 (1946), because Bitcoin has a measure of value, can be used as a form of payment, and is used as a method of exchange. The essence of an investment contract, the court reasoned, was the contribution of an exchange of value, rather than “money” in the narrow sense of legal tender only. The SEC alleged that the Defendants made a number of solicitations aimed at enticing lenders to invest in Bitcoin-related investment opportunities. The Court granted the Defendants’ motion to reconsider its prior decision on subject-matter jurisdiction, but denied the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

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Digital Insights & Trends: There’s an App for That – But Is It Legal?

Margo Tank, Head of Digital Commerce Practice

The “sharing economy” is an e-commerce darling, making household names of companies like Airbnb and Lyft, with lesser-known businesses such as RelayRides and MoneyParking emerging daily. Also called the peer-to-peer business model, the digital sharing economy was estimated at $26 billion in a 2013 Economist article, with Forbes estimating 25% annual growth. Its benefits have been touted by the public, some politicians and the press, and range from reduced environmental impacts and information asymmetry to increased social and trust communities, in addition to financial rewards for consumers on both sides of the sharing transaction.

While legions of users connect to car-sharing, home-sharing, parking-sharing and goods-sharing sites through smartphone apps, legal challenges pile up, because some aspects of the sharing economy aren’t strictly legal. Consider, for example, the subpoena from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to accommodation-sharing site Airbnb, based on Schneiderman’s claim that most Airbnb hosts are violating a law prohibiting subletting homes for less than 30 days. In his April op-ed in the New York Times (“Taming the Digital Wild West”), Schneiderman also says Uber may be violating state laws on price gouging. Read more…

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D.C. Transitions Money Transmitter And Other Licenses To NMLS

On August 20, the District of Columbia Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking (DISB) announced that, as of September 3, 2014, it will begin using the NMLS to manage money transmitter, check casher, money lender, retail seller, sales finance company and non-bank ATM licenses and registrations. Beginning on that date, new applicants for such licenses and registrations must apply via the NMLS. Entities currently holding such licenses and registrations must create a complete record in NMLS and submit it to DISB for approval by December 31, 2014.

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Federal District Court Holds Bitcoin Is Money

On August 19, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found that Bitcoin is “money” in a memorandum order denying a defendant’s motion to dismiss a federal money laundering charge. Faiella et al. v. United States, No. 14-cr-243 (JSR), 2014 WL 4100897 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 19, 2014). The defendant is a former Bitcoin exchange owner who was charged in 2013 with unlawfully operating an unlicensed money transmitting business. In his motion before the court, the defendant argued that the charge should be dismissed because Bitcoin is not “money” within the meaning of the statute. The court disagreed, relying upon the dictionary definition of “money” to conclude that Bitcoin “clearly qualifies as ‘money’” as it “can be easily purchased in exchange for ordinary currency, acts as a denominator of value, and is used to conduct financial transactions.” The court additionally relied on Congress’ intent that anti-money laundering statutes keep pace with evolving threats, and also cited an opinion from a similar case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas that concluded Bitcoin can be used as money. SEC v. Shavers, No. 4:13-CV-416, 2013 WL 4028182, at *2 (E.D. Tex. Aug. 6, 2013).

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