David Long, JD, CFE, CAMS
Principal, Northern California Fraud Prevention Solutions
Recently the digital currency, Bitcoin, has exploded into the news. Much of the news coverage has been decidedly negative. A number of events occurred that have instilled in the public’s mind a vaguely negative impression about Bitcoin, to those at least, who have actually ever heard of Bitcoin.
In October 2013, the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, a.k.a. “Dred Pirate Roberts,” who is alleged to have been the mastermind behind Silk Road, a website devoted to selling illegal drugs and other illicit items and services. The sole medium of exchange on Silk Road: Bitcoin. Then in January 2014, Charlie Shrem, a well-known member of the Bitcoin community and the CEO of BitInstant, one of the most well-known and largest bitcoin exchanges at the time, was arrested on money laundering charges. Later, in early 2014, Mt. Gox, the Tokyo-based digital currency exchange collapsed and the ensuing loss of millions of dollars-worth of customer’s bitcoins spread through the news like wildfire. Taken together, these events have caused many anti-fraud professionals working in law enforcement, regulatory agencies, compliance departments, as well as other institutions where digital currencies could conceivably be an issue, to eye Bitcoin and other alternative currencies with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Also, these events have hurt the relative strength of Bitcoin in relation to the dollar. The Bitcoin to dollar exchange rate reached a high of over $1,000 on some exchanges on November 27, 2013; however, the rate dropped to a low of $421.91 on April 7, 2014, and continues to fluctuate, further fueling skepticism about Bitcoin’s long-term viability.
In spite of the negative news, Bitcoin continues to gain support commercially among merchants and retailers. The Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association, the Chicago Sun-Times and Overstock.com, among others, now accept bitcoins as a method of payment. In addition, thousands of small businesses scattered across the U.S. with notable concentrations in San Francisco and New York, also are accepting bitcoins.
Because Bitcoin is a disruptive technology, there were no real applicable regulatory or enforcement mechanisms in place when Bitcoin came into existence in 2009. The nature of the Bitcoin protocol is such that regulations already in existence, in most cases, could not be easily adapted to the Bitcoin protocol. The exchange, transmission, trade, securitization and commoditization of bitcoins all have regulatory implications. Regulators are rightly concerned about such issues as consumer protection, anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism, fraud prevention and more. However, because of Bitcoin’s disruptive nature, the application of existing regulations often place Bitcoin into a regulatory grey area.
In March 2013, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued guidance that characterized certain Bitcoin companies, namely Bitcoin exchanges as non-bank financial institution “money services businesses,” namely “money transmitters.” Money transmitters must register with FinCEN and follow the Bank Secrecy Act’s (BSA) anti-money laundering (AML) regulations and must develop bank-level AML and Know Your Customer compliance standards for their businesses.
For anti-fraud professionals whose work might involve digital currencies, it is important to reach out and coordinate efforts with other professionals, whether they are employed in law enforcement, regulatory agencies, or compliance departments. Digital currencies are here to stay, and a proactive approach will go a long way in successfully facing difficult issues related to digital currencies likely to arise in the future.
If you would like to learn more about the Digital Currency Environment’s impact on the anti-fraud profession, register now for the David Long’s upcoming ACFE webinar: Anti-Money Laundering in the Digital Currency Environment.