U.S. Regulator: Virtual Currencies Have 'Nothing to Fear'
The United States' top anti-money-laundering regulator said some days ago her agency isn't working to clamp down on virtual currencies, though authorities expect exchanges and administrators for digital cash to comply with the same rules that apply to other financial institutions.
The comments may allay some concerns following high-profile moves against exchanges for virtual money. U.S. law enforcement officials last month brought charges against a group of men behind Liberty Reserve, a virtual currency site that allegedly laundered about $6 billion in ill-gotten gains. Separately, the Department of Homeland Security seized an account tied to bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, alleging the company and a subsidiary were conducting transactions "as part of an unlicensed money service business."
"Administrators or exchangers of virtual currencies have registration requirements and a broad range of [anti-money-laundering] program, recordkeeping, and reporting responsibilities. Those offering virtual currencies must comply with these regulatory requirements, and if they do so, they have nothing to fear from Treasury," said Jennifer Shasky Calvery, director of the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCen, in prepared remarks for a conference on the virtual economy.
Since the Department of Homeland Security seized the Mt. Gox account, the Tokyo-based exchange said it has beefed up its identification procedures for users who deposit or withdraw traditional currencies.
"It is our responsibility to provide a trusted and legal exchange, and that includes making sure that we are operating within strict anti-money-laundering rules and preventing other malicious activity," the company said last month.
FinCen in March said it would apply money-laundering rules to virtual currencies amid growing concern that new forms of cash bought on the Internet are being used to fund illicit activities. The move brought the firms into the same regulatory fold as traditional money-order providers such as Western Union Co. WU -0.24%That means registration with the government, internal safeguards, bookkeeping requirements and mandatory reporting for transactions of more than $10,000.
"Any financial institution and any financial service could be exploited for money-laundering purposes. What is important is for institutions to put controls in place to deal with those money laundering threats, and to meet their ... reporting obligations," Ms. Shasky said.
Ms. Shasky, who took over the top spot at FinCen in September 2012, noted the Liberty Reserve case. Prosecutors alleged that Liberty Reserve facilitated a range of criminal activity by allowing criminals to conduct transactions using its digital currency, "LR." The system is opaque, and Liberty Reserve deliberately kept the users anonymous and untraceable, the Justice Department said.
The same day that prosecutors unsealed their indictment, the Treasury for the first time used the 2001 Patriot Act against a virtual currency in an effort to choke off Liberty Reserve from the U.S. financial system.
"With this action, we were not painting with a broad brush against an entire industry. I do not think that is fair to any industry in any situation, let alone this one," Ms. Shasky said.
Two Liberty Reserve defendants have pleaded not guilty to federal charges in U.S. district court. The Liberty Reserve case was unrelated to bitcoin.
Virtual currencies, most notably bitcoin, still account for only a tiny fraction of global transactions, but they are being embraced by some Internet merchants and are used in a host of legitimate transactions–for example, Web services and online-dating sites.
Virtual currencies aren't backed by a government, central bank or commodity.