FEC Allows Small Bitcoin Political Contributions

On May 8, the FEC unanimously approved an advisory opinion permitting political committees to accept bitcoin contributions of $100 or less, and allowing political committees to buy and sell bitcoins as an investment. Each contributor would have to provide his or her name, physical address, occupation, and employer; affirm that he or she owns the bitcoins that he or she will contribute; and affirm that he or she is not a foreign national.  The virtual currency would be treated as an in-kind contribution; i.e., it would have to be converted to dollars before spending. The opinion does not address whether committees may take larger bitcoin contributions. The FEC remains deadlocked on whether committees may use bitcoin contributions to acquire goods and services.

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Transportation Regulator Proposes Allowing Electronic Records And Signatures

Recently, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration published a proposed rule to allow the use of electronic records and signatures to satisfy the agency’s regulatory requirements. The rule would permit the use of electronic methods to sign, certify, generate, exchange, or maintain records so long as the documents accurately reflect the information in the record and can be used for their intended purpose. The proposal seeks to implement the Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA) and the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E–SIGN), and would apply only to documents that the agency’s regulations obligate entities or individuals to retain—it would not apply to forms or other documents that must be submitted directly to the agency. Comments on the proposal are due by June 27, 2014.

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FinCEN Issues Five Rulings On Application Of BSA Regulations To Certain Activities

On April 29, FinCEN issued five rulings in response to companies who sought clarification regarding whether their company is a money service business under the BSA. In FIN-2014-R006, FinCEN determined that a company that operates an online real-time deposit, settlement, and payment services platform for banks, businesses, and consumers is considered a money transmitter, not a provider of prepaid access, and should be registered as a money services business under BSA regulations. In two other rulings—FIN-2014-R004 and FIN-2014-R005— FinCEN clarified the exemption from the money transmitter definition for persons that accept and transmit funds “only integral to the sale of goods or the provision of services, other than money transmission services.” FinCEN determined that the escrow services at issue in FIN-2014-R004 and the transaction management services at issue in FIN-2014-R005 fit within that exemption because the acceptance and transmission of funds in these cases is not a separate and discrete service in addition to the underlying service, but instead is a necessary and integral part of the service itself. Therefore, these companies are not considered to be money transmitters subject to registration. FinCEN determined in FIN-2014-R007 that a company that rents computer systems used to mine virtual currencies is not a money transmitter. Finally, in FIN-2014-R008, FinCEN determined that although the company, which uses armored cars to facilitate the exchange of coins and cash, does not qualify for the “armored car” exemption in the money transmitter definition, it is still not considered a money transmitter. FinCEN stated that the transportation of currency and/or coin of certain denominations from the company’s vault to the customer’s location and the return transportation of currency and/or coin in the exact amount of the change provided to the company’s own vault does not constitute the acceptance of value from one person and the transportation of such value to another person or location.

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FDIC White Paper Assesses Use Of Mobile Financial Services To Reach Underserved

On April 24, the FDIC hosted a meeting of its Advisory Committee on Economic Conclusion, during which FDIC staff presented a white paper on the potential for mobile financial services (MFS) to reach unbanked and underbanked consumers. The Committee meeting also covered an update on the FDIC’s safe accounts project, and included panels on youth financial literacy and consumer demand for small dollar credit. The white paper concludes that, in the short run, “MFS is best positioned to have an economic inclusion impact through its ability to meet day‐to‐day financial services needs of underbanked consumers as well as consumers at risk of account closure,” while also helping “the underserved gain access to the banking system and grow their financial capability.” The white paper encourages banks, service providers, and regulators to (i) integrate MFS into broader economic inclusion strategies; (ii) integrate MFS with other delivery channels and incorporate one-on-one interactions; (iii) “fine-tune” risk management strategies to match MFS expansion and underbanked strategies; (iv) improve convenience and speed of MFS through infrastructure enhancements; (v) enable additional mobile functionalities; (vi) develop case studies to demonstrate profitable implementation of MFS for economic inclusion; and (vii) bridge MFS with traditional payment services.

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State Regulators Circulate Model Consumer Guidance On Virtual Currency

On April 23, the CSBS’s Emerging Payment Task Force, together with the North American Securities Administrators Association, released “Model State Consumer and Investor Guidance on Virtual Currency.” The model guidance provides basic background information on virtual currency, and tips for consumers considering buying, selling, transacting with, or investing in a virtual currency.

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Michigan Federal Court Addresses Personal Jurisdiction Based On Online Sales Through Hyperlinked Third-Party Website

On April 15, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan exercised personal jurisdiction in a trademark infringement suit after determining that an out-of-state company’s website was sufficiently interactive such that the exercise of personal jurisdiction comports with Due Process. Mor-Dall Enters. v. Dark Horse Distillery, LLC, No. 1:13-cv-915, (W.D. Mich. Apr. 15, 2014). In assessing personal jurisdiction, the court relied on the sliding scale framework established in Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc., 952 F. Supp. 1119 (W.D. Pa. 1997) to assess whether a website has minimum contacts with a forum state. The court determined that the company’s website, which does not allow customers to make purchases directly but rather links customers to a third-party vendor to complete a sale, is interactive and demonstrates that the company “clearly does business over the internet.” Because the website solicits customers from across the country, including Michigan, the company purposefully availed itself of the privilege of acting in Michigan, the court explained. In so holding, the court declined to follow a Northern District of Iowa decision that a company’s website’s use of a hyperlink to a third-party vendor does not give rise to personal jurisdiction over that company. Instead, the court relied on a Sixth Circuit copyright infringement case which held that a record label whose website directed customers to Amazon.com to make purchases availed itself of the privilege of acting in the forum state. The court further held that the cause of action arises in Michigan, and that the exercise of personal jurisdiction is reasonable given the quality and quantity of contacts. The court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

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Florida District Court Holds Property Buyer’s Emails With Online Auction Company Are Not An Enforceable Contract

On April 7, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida dismissed a property buyer’s breach of contract and specific performance claims based on emails from an online auction company, holding that the emails alone did not create an enforceable real estate sales contract. Rouse v. Nationstar Mortg., LLC, No. 14-497, 2014 WL 1365420 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 7, 2014). The buyer, who won an online auction to purchase a property, sued the seller after the seller determined it did not wish to proceed with the sale. The buyer alleged breach of contract and sought specific performance, arguing that an email he received from the online auction company confirming his winning bid for the property and a subsequent email from the auction company indicating that the seller agreed to the terms of the purchase agreement memorialize all of the essential terms of the sale. The court held that even if the auction company’s emails satisfy the writing requirement of the statute of frauds as proper electronically signed documents, the confirmation email specifically stated that the seller’s acceptance of the bid and the purchase of the property was contingent not only on the seller’s approval of the purchase, but also on the execution of the purchase agreement by the winning bidder. Because the purchaser offered no evidence that he executed the purchase agreement, the court dismissed without prejudice the buyer’s breach of contract and specific performance claims. The court dismissed with prejudice the buyer’s equitable estoppel claim, but declined to dismiss the buyer’s unjust enrichment claim to recoup costs associated with repairs the buyer made to the property between the time of the auction and the seller’s decision not to proceed with the sale. The court held that the latter claim is dependent upon the seller’s actual knowledge of the repairs, which cannot be determined at this stage.

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N.D. Cal. Validates Forum Selection Clause In Website’s Hyperlinked Terms Of Use

On April 11, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held that the forum selection clause within a website’s terms of use provisions, which an online customer had to accept in order to proceed with the transaction, is valid and supports a transfer of the case to another forum. Moretti v. Hertz Corp., No. 13-2972, 2014 WL 1410432 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 11, 2014). An online customer filed a putative class action in California state court against a car rental company and a travel website over a price disclosure dispute. The companies removed the action to federal court and sought to transfer the case to Delaware based on a forum selection clause included in the terms of use provisions on the travel website through which the car rental was arranged. In support of the motion to transfer, the travel website provided employee declarations establishing that the terms of use included a forum selection clause, and that the transaction could not have been completed unless the customer clicked a box to accept the terms of use. The court held that even though the terms of use were provided through a hyperlink on the site, in the absence of affirmative denial from the customer that he did not click to accept the terms of use, the customer had notice and consented to the terms and the forum selection clause contained therein. The court granted the defendants’ transfer motion and ordered the case transferred to the District Court of Delaware.

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CFPB Proposes Remittance Rule Amendments

On April 15, the CFPB issued a proposed rule and request for comment to extend a temporary exception to Regulation E’s requirement that remittance transfer providers disclose certain fees and exchange rates to consumers. Pursuant to Regulation E, as amended to implement section 1073 of the Dodd-Frank Act, insured depository institutions are permitted to estimate certain third-party fees and exchange rates in connection with a remittance transfer until July 21, 2015, provided the transfer is sent from the sender’s account with the institution, and the institution is unable to determine the exact amount of the fees and rates due to circumstances outside of the institution’s control. The CFPB is proposing to exercise its statutory authority to extend this exception for an additional five years, until July 21, 2020. The agency explained that, based on its outreach to insured institutions and consumer groups, allowing the initial temporary exception to lapse would negatively affect the ability of insured institutions to send remittance transfers. Comments on the proposed rule are due within 30 days of its publication in the Federal Register. Read more…

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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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