US regulator calls for global cooperation to stop fraudulent ICOs

Initial coin offerings (ICOs) are outright frauds that need to be stopped, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This is why it has become hard for regulators to monitor ICOs activities in different jurisdiction because often money raised in ICOs comes from investors in America and other parts of the world.

While speaking at Harvard Law School’s Program on International Financial System, SEC Co-Director for Enforcement Division Steven Peikin noted how the ICO market has exploded from a mere concept to a phenomenon within a short period of time. In 2016, ICOs raised $100 million, while in 2018, they raised $22 billion—a 22,000% increase. The novelty of ICOs, accompanied with the excitement surrounding blockchain technology, has been a key attraction that enterprising people have been using to lure investors, according to Peikin.

The hype and growth of the  ICOs can obscure the fact that most of these offering are high-risk investments. At times, the issuers may lack established records of accomplishment. They may also not have viable products business model or proper security measures safeguarding the digital assets from hackers. Without considering all these investors are quick, to pour out their money to projects that eventually fraudulently shut down.

Peikin recalled the case of ICO fraud conducted by Canadian Dominic Lacroix, who defrauded many U.S. investors out of some $15 million by promising a 13-fold profit in less than a month. Lacroix turned out to have had a long history of doing similar financial frauds in Quebec and Canada.

Peikin believes in fighting the fraudulent activities in ICOs and the crypto space there should be global cooperation. He acknowledges collaboration between, the United stated and Canada in Operation Crypto Sweep. The operation was launched in May 2018 by the two countries, which is conducting over 70 investigations into cryptocurrency scams and fraud in ICOs. So far, the North American Securities Administrators Association has sent cease letter to operators of fraudulent crypto companies I more than forty jurisdictions in both countries.

According to Peikin, “The sponsors of ICOs are, in many instances, located outside the United States. And international cooperation is critical to our ability to investigate and, where appropriate, recommend that the Commission bring enforcement action.”

Meanwhile, SEC lawyers recently warned celebrities from endorsing ICOs to avoid being charged with fraud. A few celebrities, such as Floyd Mayweather and Dj Khaled, have already fallen victims to such fraudulent ICOs.

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US Congressman introduces federal crypto regulations

The U.S. could be inching closer to creating a regulatory framework for cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (ICO). Representative Warren Davidson from Ohio has been working on a new bill that is designed to pave the way for crypto and ICO regulations, according to media outlet Cleveland.com, and would clarify the definition of cryptocurrencies.

The bill will be presented to the House of Representatives for discussion. It looks to create a new and unique asset class that would cover crypto and ICOs, allowing the government to regulate the crypto space more thoroughly. The legislation is designed to prevent digital assets from being classified as securities and would allow the federal government to maintain complete regulatory oversight of token offerings.

There is a lot of confusion in the U.S. regarding how to define cryptocurrencies. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has said that, with the exception of Bitcoin Core (BTC) and Ether (ETH), the majority of cryptocurrencies are securities. On the other hand, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) asserts that they are commodities.

Two additional agencies, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), both say that crypto is money. Without a central definition in place, standard regulations cannot be created.

Davidson is somewhat of a proponent of cryptocurrencies, or at least of the space in general. He has been pushing for regulation of crypto and assisted in the writing of a letter to the SEC this past September in which he asked that the commission speed up its introduction of legislation in order to prevent tech companies from leaving the U.S. The letter read, in part, “Current uncertainty surrounding the treatment of offers and sales of digital tokens is hindering innovation in the United States and will ultimately drive business elsewhere. We believe that the SEC could do more to clarify its position.”

Even if the bill were to pass through the House, it would still need to be considered by the Senate. Ultimately, this means that regulations shouldn’t be expected to come anytime soon. Perhaps they’ll be implemented sometime next year, but there’s still a long road ahead.

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Homeland Security wants a look at activities on private blockchains

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has become the latest arm of government to take an interest in blockchain, this time with a view to develop forensic analysis tools for analysing blockchain transactions.

The department is seeking submissions from blockchain experts as part of a consultation exercise, inviting design applications as well as commentary from interested parties. The process is aimed at exploring solutions that would allow Homeland Security investigators to conduct detailed analysis of blockchain transactions, including privacy coins, which have until now eluded existing analytics technologies.

Interestingly, the Department of Homeland Security specifies that while previous analysis work has been conducted on Bitcoin Core (BTC) blockchain, it is interested in new options for analysis on privacy coins such as Monero and Zcash, which exist within private blockchains.

This is relevant given the association of privacy coins along with BTC in alleged criminal use cases for these digital currencies, with criminals turning to the anonymity afforded by transacting on these blockchains.

According to the solicitation document, the technology should “provide working approaches to treating newer blockchain implementations,” as well as having applicability in other administrative use cases. It noted, “Because of the significant impact in areas such as governance, data sharing agreement enforcement, and encrypted analytics interchanges, there are a wide variety of applications in government and the commercial marketplace that can benefit from successful product development.”

The pre-solicitation notice will be finalised on December 19, at which point formal applications will be welcomed, as part of the initial stages of a process that could offer greater access for the authorities to these closed blockchain networks.

In launching the pre-solicitation notice, the Department of Homeland Security becomes the latest government agency to increase its focus on blockchain technology.

Recently the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced plans for a two day research event, as part of its interest in “several, less-explored avenues of permissionless distributed consensus protocols.”

It comes at a time of increasing awareness of the value of blockchain technologies in public administration across different sectors, with government agencies exploring a number of use cases for blockchain systems.

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US-based payment processor expands into crypto

A payment processor with a significant footprint in the U.S. has joined forces with tech company Vaultbank to bring crypto payments to retail customers. SpotOn, which provides a payment processing solution to more than 100,000 merchants in the country, will soon include crypto payment transactions to its platform, allowing retailers to accept a number of digital currencies, including Bitcoin Core, Ripple, Ether and Stellar.

According to a company press release, customers will now be able to pay in the currency of their choice and merchants can choose whether or not to almost instantaneously convert crypto payments to fiat, or to hold them in their original form. SpotOn also has additional developments in the pipeline, including the introduction of a crypto-based loyalty rewards program and the ability to buy and sell crypto directly on its platform.

SpotOn President RJ Horsely states, “Today’s ever-evolving digital market demands that merchants need a payment service capable of accepting a wider diversity of currencies including virtual currencies. Our new technology will allow thousands of SpotOn merchants to accept cryptocurrency without having to onboard to another payment processor or manually convert cryptocurrency funds into fiat.”

Vaultbank is a firm that creates, issues and trades financial instruments using the blockchain. SpotOn invested in a seed-funding round held by the company, which is developing a platform that will allow users to buy, sell and spend their crypto assets on a single solution. The Vaultbank website indicates, “The Vaultbank Platform plans to tokenize securities like Mutual Funds, and will be a securities compliant platform that performs KYC [Know Your Customer], AML [anti-money laundering], FATCA [Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act] and Accreditation. Users will be able to buy and sell security tokens and top utility tokens at industry competitive rates.”

Vaultbank Chief Operating Officer Aaron Travis added in the press release, “This partnership empowers the customer to pay in whatever digital currency they want, while the merchant gets paid in what they want, dollars.”

By giving merchants an easy-to-use crypto payments solution, coupled with the ability to convert the funds into fiat, can go a long way to helping crypto be accepted as an alternative payment solution. The market volatility has kept many retailers away, concerned about losing revenue. However, transferring funds to fiat – until the markets stabilize – helps to counter this issue.

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US court rejects unregistered securities case against Blockvest

A court in the United States has rejected a claim brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) against blockchain assets exchange Blockvest, in a case that could help shape precedent on unregistered securities.

SEC, the regulator tasked with upholding securities law in the U.S., accused Blockvest of promoting an unregistered security, contrary to the law. The firm’s BLV token has come in for scrutiny by the regulator, initially leading to a temporary asset freeze against the company after a preliminary order by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

However, in the latest twist in the case, a court has found that the SEC failed to demonstrate BLV tokens were unregistered securities, citing the Howey Test model for determining whether an asset falls within the remit of securities law.

According to court documents, a copy of which was secured by CCN, the court is unable to consider the BLV token a security, a material element for any asset being subject to the remit of the SEC.

“At this stage, without full discovery and disputed issues of material facts, the Court cannot make a determination whether the BLV token offered to the 32 test investors was a ‘security,’” the documents noted. “Thus, Plaintiff [the SEC] has not demonstrated that the BLV tokens purchased by the 32 test investors were ‘securities’ as defined under the securities laws.”

Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel went on to decline an application for an injunction against Blockvest, as well as several other related claims against the firm.

The development is a setback for the securities regulator, which has been increasingly active in enforcement action against fraudulent ICOs in recent months. Other cases have been more successful the regulator, with several notable examples of successful enforcement action against ICO promoters.

Just this month, Airfox and Paragon, which both raised millions through their ICOs, were ordered to repay investors, as well as a $250,000 fine each for failing to appropriately register securities, and for selling securities without being a registered dealer or agent.

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Coinbase launches OTC desk for crypto institutional investors

California-based cryptocurrency company Coinbase is looking to attract more institutional investors. According to live-streaming site Cheddar, the crypto wallet and exchange company has introduced an over-the-counter (OTC) trading desk specifically for the investment class in response to customer demand. It’s just one step in the company’s plans to be a versatile platform that is regulated by U.S. authorities.

Coinbase Director of Institutional Sales Christine Sandler explained of the new offering, “We launched our OTC business as a complement to our exchange business because we found a lot of institutions were using OTC as an on-ramp for crypto trading.” She adds that the platform will allow clients to leverage Coinbase’s exchange and OTC service and explains that the OTC desk could soon be combined with its custody platform, Coinbase Custody.

It will compete against other OTC services, including Goldman Sachs-backed Circle and the Gemini exchange. However, Sandler points out that Coinbase’s solution will be unique. She states, “Circle and a number of others have complementary products, but they also trade on a proprietary basis, so they are the counterparty to each transaction, while we, in fact, are matching client orders.”

The current market slump may have scared off some investors, but they weren’t true believers in crypto’s capabilities. Those that see the potential of digital currency are in for the long haul. Sandler adds, “From our crypto first clients, we’re hearing that nothing has changed with respect to technology, and they’re still absolutely committed to crypto … to the technology. I think that there’s one small silver lining to this volatility … [it’s] that crypto’s been front and center of the mainstream financial media for the last few weeks. I think that has driven … forced a lot of institutions to think, really, is this an opportunistic investment point for crypto at this point.”

Coinbase is hoping to be a fully regulated platform. It is working with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to become a licensed broker-dealer. It hopes to be able to introduce a range of crypto-related solutions, such as crypto securities and margin trades, as well as new data products not yet identified. Coinbase has also received authorization from the New York State Department of Financial Services to establish a regulated custody solution in the state.

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AriseBank CEO arrested by FBI over $4-million scam

Another scammer targeting the cryptocurrency space has been taken out. In a press release by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from this past Wednesday, the agency announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrested the co-founder of a crypto platform following his indictment on charges that resulted in millions of dollars in losses to a number of investors.

30-year-old Jared Rice Sr., co-founder of AriseBank, scammed investors out of more than $4 million, enticing them to invest in the “first decentralized banking platform” in the U.S. He concocted a story that the institution would offer bank accounts insured by the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), as well as credit and debit cards backed by Visa. He also claimed that he had raised “$600 million within just a few weeks” through an initial coin offering (ICO). Unfortunately, everything he said was a lie.

None of the money he collected was used for its stated purpose. Instead, Rice used it to buy clothes, eat in fancy restaurants and take luxury vacations.

Rice has been charged with three counts of wire fraud and three counts of securities fraud. The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, Erin Nealy Cox, asserts, “My office is committed to enforcing the rule of law in the cryptocurrency space. The Northern District of Texas will not tolerate this sort of flagrant deception – online or off.”

This isn’t the first time that regulators have had a run-in with Rice. This past January, he, along with the company’s co-founder, Stanley Ford, was sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for fraud and unlawfully issuing securities. He was also served with a cease-and-desist order from the Texas Department of Banking in relation to his activities. The SEC has also indicated, in February, that he had been on probation after being indicted in 2015 for charges related to theft and tampering with government records. A separate felony indictment also hangs over the crook in Dallas County, Texas for assault.

His next trip will be to a court to find out if he is to be convicted on all charges. If that happens, he could be sentenced to up to 120 years in federal prison.

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Texas securities issues cease and desist as ICO crackdown continues

The Texas Securities Commissioner has issued an emergency cease and desist order against My Crypto Mine and Mark Royer, an individual involved with the company, in the latest wave of enforcement action against illegal initial coin offerings (ICOs).

Royer is accused of acting on a behalf of a disbarred attorney, Samuel Mendez, and a “white collar criminal” Bruce Bise, in offer crypto tokens known as bitqy through a company, BitQyck. Urging investors who missed out on BTC to back BitQyck, the bitqy tokens have subsequently turned out to be near worthless.

At the time of selling tokens to investors, Royer said they were available for $0.02, with the implication that prices would rise to $3 per token. In reality, the tokens are now worthless, with most of those who invested having lost the entirety of their invested principal.

The filing identifies Royer as working for a new firm, My Crypto Mine, without disclosing his prior affiliation with BitQyck and bitqy. My Crypto Mine appeals to investors in Texas and elsewhere to invest in the company, with the promise of significant returns from crypto mining—ironically at a time when some of the world’s largest crypto mining companies are filing for bankruptcy.

The cease and desist order says My Crypto Mine is issuing unregistered securities, and that the respondents are not registered with the Securities Commissioner as agents or dealers, a position that is in breach of securities laws.

The order also alleges that My Crypto Mine has failed to disclose material details to investors, both about the business and about Royer’s past affiliations with potentially fraudulent cryptocurrency schemes.

There has also been a failure to disclose risks to investors appropriately, including notices that government actions could ultimately affect the value of any investment in the company.

The respondents have been ordered to cease and desist from offering securities in Texas, and from acting as dealers and agents in the offer of these securities. It comes as the latest example of a securities regulator cracking down on fraudulent ICOs and token sales, which continue to exploit unsuspecting investors globally.

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US Treasury links crypto addresses to Iranian ransomware scam

The U.S. Department of the Treasury has identified two separate wallet addresses linked to the latest Iranian crypto ransomware plot.

The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that two Iranian citizens, Ali Khorashadizadeh and Mohammad Ghorbaniyan, are to be added to its sanctions list, along with two crypto addresses linked to these individuals.

Including the crypto addresses within the scope of sanctions on Iran marks the first time a regulator has had to resort to blacklisting crypto wallet addresses on this basis. The wallet addresses will be included alongside other identifying information, such as their personal addresses, email addresses and known aliases.

OFAC had previously confirmed it would be including crypto wallet addresses in the data, in order to prevent Iranian actors from relying on cryptocurrency to evade sanctions.

Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker said the move would stop illicit actors from relying on cryptocurrency to avoid sanctions.

“We are publishing digital currency addresses to identify illicit actors operating in the digital currency space. Treasury will aggressively pursue Iran and other rogue regimes attempting to exploit digital currencies and weaknesses in cyber and AML/CFT safeguards to further their nefarious objectives,” Mandelker said. “As Iran becomes increasingly isolated and desperate for access to U.S. dollars, it is vital that virtual currency exchanges, peer-to-peer exchangers, and other providers of digital currency services harden their networks against these illicit schemes.”

Khorashadizadeh and Ghorbaniyan are specifically linked to the SamSam ransomware, which has exploited over 200 organisations over a period of several years, including hospitals, government departments and universities.

The ransomware worked by holding data hostage, and demanding a ransom to be paid in BTC to the identified addresses.

The decision will be a blow to criminals and scammers worldwide, who continue to use crypto to avoid the detection of authorities in a number of criminal applications, including funding rogue states and financing terrorism.

It also means exchanges will now be held responsible for ensuring they don’t send funds to these addresses or individuals, with secondary sanctions warned against those who fail to comply.

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Bitstamp exchange wants to stamp out market manipulation

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has said that it wants to see cryptocurrency markets, including exchanges, take steps to protect investors from manipulation if exchange-traded funds (ETF) are to be approved. One exchange is already working toward cleaning up the space and has introduced a tool that will allow it to monitor the platform for market manipulation and suspicious activity.

The Bitstamp exchange has announced that it will begin to use the Irisium Surveillance platform to uncover questionable market activity. The platform, which is already used by a number of financial entities including the Asia Pacific Exchange (APEX), is partly owned by Cinnober, a tech developer for financial markets with which Bitstamp recently partnered.

Bitstamp’s founder and CEO, Nejc Kodric, stated of the inclusion of Irisium, “We are committed to crypto in the long term. Our desire is to guarantee a fair and orderly market which reflects genuine supply and demand. Exploring new frontiers in preventing market manipulation is essential for the industry to mature.”

Irisium, according to the company’s website, has created a number of tools that allow entities to monitor trading platforms and ensure compliance with European regulations, including the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, the Market Abuse Regulation and the Regulation on Wholesale Energy Market Integrity and Transparency. The site further asserts, “The system makes available the tools and analytical data to enable regulators to identify, track and investigate any trading activity” and “is already utilized by European regulators.”

Irisium’s CEO, Alastair Goodwin, explained of the new partnership with Bitstamp, “Bitstamp’s pro-active adoption of Irisium and close partnership with us demonstrates their desire to increase transparency, integrity and confidence in the cryptocurrency market. … Enhanced customer protection and market integrity will help drive adoption and market liquidity.”

Bitstamp’s decision to use the Irisium platform was completely independent of the SEC’s statement on market manipulation. However, the timing is perfect and could, if it works as planned, allow for crypto exchanges to jump one of the hurdles that have keep institutional investors at bay. Moves such as this, coupled with the announcements made by Fidelity and NASDAQ that they are almost ready to get their crypto platforms going, should help 2019 to be an important year for the crypto industry.

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