Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC)

BitcoinThe Internal Revenue Service has assembled a specialized team of criminal investigators to build criminal tax evasion cases involving users of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, according to a Bloomberg article entitled “IRS Cops Are Scouring Crypto Accounts to Build Tax Evasion Cases.” In that article, David Voreacos writes that IRS Special Agents are pivoting from investigating taxpayers with secret offshore bank accounts to taxpayers with cryptocurrency accounts. Don Fort, chief of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division (IRS-CI), is quoted as saying that “It’s possible to use Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in the same fashion as foreign bank accounts to facilitate tax evasion.”

Last fall, IRS-CI announced that it was creating a new international tax enforcement group to focus on investigating and building criminal cases involving cross-border activity. According to the Bloomberg article, a newly-assembled team of 10 special agents in that group are now focusing not only on international crimes but also potential tax evasion using cryptocurrency.

As we have previously reported (here, here, and here), other federal agencies are tightening the regulatory framework surrounding cryptocurrencies and are launching vigorous enforcement campaigns to crackdown on fraud. Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission have formed specialized enforcement groups to focus on cryptocurrency fraud, and have issued stern warnings to investors and consumers about the risks of cryptocurrency investments.

Last fall, the Internal Revenue Service has prevailed in its long-running dispute with Coinbase, the largest U.S.-based Bitcoin exchange, with a federal judge ordering Coinbase to comply with a “John Doe” summons seeking customer information. In an opinion issued on November 28, 2017, the court in San Francisco found that the government’s narrowed request for information on Coinbase’s customers served the legitimate purpose of investigating whether Bitcoin users properly reported gains or losses on their income tax returns. The Court also found that the customer records sought by the government were relevant because they can be used by the IRS to determine whether a particular Coinbase customer is tax compliant. Coinbase must now hand over to the IRS records for accounts that had at least one transaction of at least $20,000 value during the period 2013 to 2015. According to Coinbase, this will require it to divulge trading records regarding nearly 9 million transactions conducted by over 14,000 customers.

Notwithstanding all of this enforcement activity, early data from federal tax filing season (which began January 29, 2018) suggests that cryptocurrency investors may not be properly reporting gains/losses on their 2017 federal income tax returns. Reuters reported yesterday on preliminary tax filing data from online tax service Credit Karma:

Less than 100 people out of the 250,000 individuals who have already filed federal taxes this year through company Credit Karma reported a cryptocurrency transaction to U.S. tax authorities, the company said on Tuesday.

This is despite nearly 57 percent of the 2000 Americans surveyed by the credit score startup and research firm Qualtrics last month saying they had realized some gains from cryptocurrencies, according to a Credit Karma study.

Roughly the same percentage said they had never reported cryptocurrency gains to the Internal Revenue Service, while nearly half of those polled said they understood how owning cryptocurrencies affected their taxes, the study said.

The IRS considers cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin as property for federal tax purposes, meaning any profits or losses from the sale or exchange of the virtual coins should generally be reported as capital gains or losses.

Trading of cryptocurrencies, digital tokens whose value is not backed by central banks and hard assets, surged in 2017 amid a rally in their price. A single bitcoin is worth more than $8000, compared with $1000 a year ago.

Despite the surge it remains unclear how many Americans hold cryptocurrencies as these are bought and sold on online platforms, sometimes anonymously or using pseudonyms. US-based cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase says it has 10 million users, although it is unclear how many of these are in the U.S.

Jagjit Chawla, general manager for Credit Karma Tax said the company was not too surprised that few people had reported cryptocurrency gains as Americans with more complex tax situations tend to file closer to the deadline.

“However, given the popularity of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in 2017, we’d expect more people to be reporting,” Chawla said in a statement.

Credit Karma entered the online tax filing market last year, and about 1 million individuals filed their tax returns using Credit Karma’s product.

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BitcoinOver the course of the last two months, we have witnessed a flurry of enforcement activity with respect to initial coin offerings and virtual currency fraud schemes by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The SEC continued that trend today with an announcement that it has obtained a court order halting an allegedly fraudulent ICO that targeted retail investors to fund what was claimed to be the world’s first “decentralized bank” offering its own cryptocurrency. The public sale in question began around December 26, 2017, and was originally scheduled to conclude on January 27, 2018, with distribution to investors on February 10, 2018.

According to the SEC’s complaint, filed in federal district court in Dallas on January 25 and unsealed late yesterday, Dallas-based AriseBank used social media, a celebrity endorsement, and other tactics to raise what it claims to be $600 million of its $1 billion goal in just two months. AriseBank and its two co-founders allegedly offered and sold unregistered investments in their “AriseCoin” cryptocurrency by depicting AriseBank as a first-of-its-kind decentralized bank offering a variety of consumer-facing banking products and services using more than 700 different virtual currencies.  AriseBank’s sales pitch claimed that it developed an algorithmic trading application that automatically trades in various cryptocurrencies.

The SEC alleges that AriseBank falsely stated that it purchased an FDIC-insured bank which enabled it to offer customers FDIC-insured accounts and that it also offered customers the ability to obtain an AriseBank-branded VISA card to spend any of the 700-plus cryptocurrencies.  AriseBank also allegedly omitted to disclose the criminal background of key executives.

The district court approved an emergency asset freeze over AriseBank and its two co-founders, and appointed a receiver over AriseBank, including over its digital assets.  The court-appointed receiver was able to immediately secure various cryptocurrencies held by AriseBank including Bitcoin, Litecoin, Bitshares, Dogecoin, and BitUSD.  The SEC seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains plus interest and penalties, and bars against the individuals to prohibit them from serving as officers or directors of a public company or offering digital securities again in the future.

Today’s announcement from the SEC is the latest foray in an aggressive federal crackdown on virtual currency scams that has been underway since last fall. Both the SEC and CFTC have created specialized units to focus on virtual currency issues. The SEC’s Cyber Unit was created in September 2017 to focus the Enforcement Division’s cyber-related expertise on misconduct involving distributed ledger technology and initial coin offerings, the spread of false information through electronic and social media, hacking, and threats to trading platforms. The CFTC has created a Virtual Currency Task Force to focus on virtual currency fraud schemes.

The SEC’s Cyber Unit filed its first-ever suit to halt an ICO scam in early December (coverage here). Shortly thereafter, the SEC announced that it had obtained a cease-and-desist order to halt a California company’s ICO (coverage here).

Earlier this month, the CFTC weighed in, announcing the filing of two enforcement actions to combat alleged virtual currency fraud schemes (coverage here). The next day, the CFTC and SEC issued a joint statement reaffirming their agencies’ commitment to continuing to address violations and to bringing legal actions to stop and prevent fraud in the offer and sale of digital instruments. Most recently, the CFTC filed suit on January 24 to halt an alleged virtual currency scam involving a currency called My Big Coin (coverage here).

In addition to these enforcement actions, the SEC and CFTC have published guidance warning consumers and investors as to the perils of ICOs and virtual currency schemes. The SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an Investor Alert in August 2017. In December 2017, the CFTC launched its Virtual Currency Resource Web Page and published a Customer Advisory to inform the public of possible risks associated with investing or speculating in virtual currencies.

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Last week we reported on a flurry of enforcement activity by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission’s “Virtual Currency Task Force” with respect to virtual currency fraud schemes. On Thursday, January 18, the CFTC filed two lawsuits in federal court in New York seeking to shut down two such schemes and to recover funds for victimized investors. The first suit charged a New York resident and his New York-based company with fraud and misappropriation in connection with purchases and trading of Bitcoin and Litecoin. The second suit charged a Colorado resident and his United Kingdom-registered company with a Ponzi-style scheme involving the solicitation of Bitcoin from investors to be pooled and invested in products including binary options. The following day, the Directors of Enforcement for both the CFTC and the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a joint statement reaffirming their agencies’ commitment to address violations and to bring actions to stop and prevent fraud in the offer and sale of digital instruments.

Continuing its crackdown on virtual currency fraud, the CFTC today announced the filing of another enforcement action charging commodity fraud and misappropriation related to the ongoing solicitation of customers for a virtual currency known as My Big Coin (MBC). The CFTC Complaint charges Randall Crater of East Hampton, New York, Mark Gillespie of Hartland, Michigan, and My Big Coin Pay, Inc., a corporation based in Las Vegas, Nevada, with misappropriating over $6 million from customers by, among other things, transferring customer funds into personal bank accounts, and using those funds for personal expenses and the purchase of luxury goods.

The suit was filed on January 16, 2018, under seal, in federal court in Massachusetts. On that same day, the Court issued a temporary restraining order, also under seal, freezing the defendants’ assets. The restraining order also freezes the assets of multiple relief defendants for allegedly receiving customer funds without providing any legitimate services to clients and without any interest or entitlement to such customer funds. The Court’s restraining order also prohibits the defendants and relief defendants from destroying or altering books and records.

The CFTC’s complaint alleges that from at least January 2014 through January 2018, the defendants fraudulently solicited potential and existing MBC customers throughout the United States by making false and misleading claims and omissions about MBC’s value, usage, and trade status, and that MBC was backed by gold. The defendants are also alleged to have fraudulently solicited numerous customers in Massachusetts, receiving in excess of $5 million from those customers.

As alleged in the complaint, the MBC website, maintained and operated by the defendants, conveyed to customers numerous solicitation materials, MBC trade data, and other materials (1) misrepresenting that MBC was actively being traded on several currency exchanges, including the MBC Exchange website, when in fact it was not; (2) misrepresenting in reports the daily trading price, when in fact no price existed because MBC was not trading; (3) misrepresenting that MBC was backed by gold, when in fact it was not; and (4) misrepresenting that MBC had partnered with MasterCard, with the promise that MBC could be used anywhere MasterCard was accepted, when in fact no such partnership existed and MBC could not be used anywhere MasterCard was accepted. In reality, as alleged, the supposed trading results were illusory, and any payouts to customers were derived from funds fraudulently obtained from other customers in the manner of a Ponzi scheme.

As customers began to raise questions about their MBC accounts, the complaint alleges that the defendants attempted to conceal their fraud by issuing additional coins to customers and falsely representing that they had secured a deal with another exchange to trade MBC. The defendants allegedly encouraged customers to refrain from redeeming their MBC holdings until MBC was active on this “new” exchange.

The CFTC alleges that the defendants misappropriated virtually all of the approximately $6 million they solicited from customers, using these funds to purchase a home, antiques, fine art, jewelry, luxury goods, furniture, interior decorating and other home improvement services, travel, and entertainment.

In the litigation, the CFTC seeks civil monetary penalties, restitution, rescission, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, trading and registration bans, and permanent injunctions against further violations of the federal commodities laws, as charged.

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