OFAC Reaffirms Focus on Virtual Currency with Updated Sanctions Law Guidance

Overview


On October 15, 2021, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) announced updated guidance for virtual currency companies in meeting their obligations under US sanctions laws. On the same day, OFAC also issued guidance clarifying various cryptocurrency-related definitions.

Coming on the heels of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020—and in the context of the Biden administration’s effort to crackdown on ransomware attacks—the recent guidance is the latest indication that regulators are increasingly focusing on virtual currency and blockchain. In light of these developments, virtual currency market participants and service providers should ensure they are meeting their respective sanctions obligations by employing a “risk-based” anti-money laundering and sanctions compliance program.

This update highlights the government’s continued movement toward subjecting the virtual currency industry to the same requirements, scrutiny and consequences in cases of noncompliance as applicable to traditional financial institutions.

In Depth


The release of OFAC’s Sanctions Compliance Guidance for the Virtual Currency Industry indicates an increasing expectation for diligence as it has now made clear on several occasions that sanctions compliance “obligations are the same” for virtual currency companies who must employ an unspecified “risk-based” program (See: OFAC Consolidated Frequently asked Questions 560). OFAC published it with the stated goal of “help[ing] the virtual currency industry prevent exploitation by sanctioned persons and other illicit actors.”

With this release, OFAC also provided some answers and updates to two of its published sets of “Frequently Asked Questions.”

FAQ UPDATES (FAQ 559 AND 546)

All are required to comply with the US sanctions compliance program, including persons and entities in the virtual currency and blockchain community. OFAC has said time and again that a “risk-based” program is required but that “there is no single compliance program or solution suitable for all circumstances” (See: FAQ 560). While market participants and service providers in the virtual currency industry must all comply, the risk of violating US sanctions are most acute for certain key service providers, such as cryptocurrency exchanges and over-the-counter (OTC) desks that facilitate large volumes of virtual currency transactions.

OFAC previously used the term “digital currency” when it issued its first FAQ and guidance on the subject (FAQ 560), which stated that sanctions compliance is applicable to “digital currency” and that OFAC “may include as identifiers on the [Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons] SDN List specific digital currency addresses associated with blocked persons.” Subsequently, OFAC placed certain digital currency addresses on the SDN List as identifiers.

While OFAC previously used the term “digital currency,” in more recent FAQs and guidance, it has used a combination of the terms “digital currency” and “virtual currency” without defining those terms until it released FAQ 559.

In FAQ 559, OFAC defines “virtual currency” as “a digital representation of value that functions as (i) a medium of exchange; (ii) a unit of account; and/or (iii) a store of value; and is neither issued nor granted by any jurisdiction.” This is a broad definition but likely encompasses most assets, which are commonly referred to as “cryptocurrency” or “tokens,” as most of these assets may be considered as “mediums of exchange.”

OFAC also defines “digital currency” as “sovereign cryptocurrency, virtual currency (non-fiat), and a digital representation of fiat currency.” This definition appears to be an obvious effort by OFAC to make clear that its definitions include virtual currencies issued or backed by foreign governments and stablecoins.

The reference to “sovereign cryptocurrency” is focused on cryptocurrency issued by foreign governments, such as Venezuela. This is not the first time OFAC has focused on sovereign cryptocurrency. It ascribed the use of sovereign backed cryptocurrencies as a high-risk vector for US sanctions circumvention. Executive Order (EO) 13827, which was issued on March 19, 2018, explicitly stated:

In light of recent actions taken by the Maduro regime to attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions by issuing a digital currency in a process that Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly has denounced as unlawful, hereby order as follows: Section 1. (a) All transactions related to, provision of financing for, and other dealings in, by a United States person or within the United States, and digital currency, digital coin, or digital token, that was issued by, for, or on behalf of the Government of Venezuela on or after January 9, 2018, are prohibited as of the effective date of this order.

On March 19, 2018, OFAC issued FAQs 564, 565 and 566, which were specifically focused on Venezuela issued cryptocurrencies, stating that “petro” and “petro gold” are considered a “digital currency, digital coin, or digital token” subject to EO 13827. While OFAC has not issued specific FAQs or guidance on other sovereign backed cryptocurrencies, it may be concerned that a series of countries have stated publicly that they plan to test and launch sovereign backed securities, including Russia, Iran, China, Japan, England, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, Singapore and India. With the release if its most recent FAQs, OFAC is reaffirming that it views sovereign cryptocurrencies as highly risky and well within the scope of US sanctions programs.

The reference to a “digital representation of fiat currency” appears to be a reference to “stablecoins.” In theory, stablecoins are each worth a specified value in fiat currency (usually one USD each). Most stablecoins were touted as being completely backed by fiat currency stored in segregated bank accounts. The viability and safety of stablecoins, however, has recently been called into question. One of the biggest players in the stablecoin industry is Tether, who was recently fined $41 million by the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission for failing to have the appropriate fiat reserves backing its highly popular stablecoin US Dollar Token (USDT). OFAC appears to have taken notice and states in its FAQ that “digital representations of fiat currency” are covered by its regulations and FAQs.

FAQ 646 provides some guidance on how cryptocurrency exchanges and other service providers should implement a “block” on virtual currency. Any US persons (or persons subject to US jurisdiction), including financial institutions, are required under US sanctions programs to “block” assets, which requires freezing assets and notifying OFAC within 10 days. (See: 31 C.F.R. § 501.603 (b)(1)(i).) FAQ 646 makes clear that “blocking” obligations applies to virtual currency and also indicates that OFAC expects cryptocurrency exchanges and other service providers be required to “block” the virtual currency at issue and freeze all other virtual currency wallets “in which a blocked person has an interest.”

Depending on the strength of the anti-money laundering/know-your-customer (AML/KYC) policies employed, it will likely prove difficult for cryptocurrency exchanges and other service providers to be sure that they have identified all associated virtual currency wallets in which a “blocked person has an interest.” It is possible that a cryptocurrency exchange could onboard a customer who complied with an appropriate risk-based AML/KYC policy and, unbeknownst to the cryptocurrency exchange, a blocked person “has an interest” in one of the virtual currency wallets. It remains to be seen how OFAC will employ this “has an interest” standard and whether it will take any cryptocurrency exchanges or other service providers to task for not blocking virtual currency wallets in which a blocked person “has an interest.” It is important for cryptocurrency exchanges or other service providers to implement an appropriate risk-based AML/KYC policy to defend any inquiries from OFAC as to whether it has complied with the various US sanctions programs, including by having the ability to identify other virtual currency wallets in which a blocked person “has an interest.”

UPDATED SANCTIONS COMPLIANCE GUIDANCE

OFAC’s recent framework for OFAC Compliance Commitments outlines five essential components for a virtual currency operator’s sanctions compliance program. These components generally track those applicable to more traditional financial institutions and include:

  1. Senior management should ensure that adequate resources are devoted to the support of compliance, that a competent sanctions compliance officer is appointed and that adequate independence is granted to the compliance unit to carry out their role.
  2. An operative risk assessment should be fashioned to reflect the unique exposure of the company. OFAC maintains both a public use sanctions list and a free search tool for that list which should be employed to identify and prevent sanctioned individuals and entities from accessing the company’s services.
  3. Internal controls must be put in place that address the unique risks recognized by the company’s risk assessment. OFAC does not have a specific software or hardware requirement regarding internal controls.
    1. Although OFAC does not specify required internal controls, it does provide recommended best practices. These include geolocation tools with IP address blocking controls, KYC procedures for both individuals and entities, transaction monitoring and investigation software that can review historically identified bad actors, the implementation of remedial measures upon internal discovery of weakness in sanction compliance, sanction screening and establishing risk indicators or red flags that require additional scrutiny when triggered.
    2. Additionally, information should be obtained upon the formation of each new customer relationship. A formal due diligence plan should be in place and operated sufficiently to alert the service provider to possible sanctions-related alarms. Customer data should be maintained and updated through the lifecycle of that customer relationship.
  4. To ensure an entity’s sanctions compliance program is effective and efficient, that entity should regularly test their compliance against independent objective testing and auditing functions.
  5. Proper training must be provided to a company’s workforce. For a company’s sanctions compliance program to be effective, its workforce must be properly outfitted with the hard and soft skills required to execute its compliance program. Although training programs may vary, OFAC training should be provided annually for all employees.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

As noted in OFAC’s press release issued simultaneously with the updated FAQ’s, “[t]hese actions are a part of the Biden Administration’s focused, integrated effort to counter the ransomware threat.” The Biden administration’s increased focus on regulatory and enforcement action in the virtual currency space highlights the importance for market participants and service providers to implement a robust compliance program. Cryptocurrency exchanges and other service providers must take special care in drafting and implementing their respective AML/KYC policies and in ensuring the existence of risk-based AML and sanctions compliance programs, which includes a periodic training program. When responding to inquiries from OFAC or other regulators, it will be critical to have documented evidence of the implementation of a risk-based AML/KYC program and proof that employees have been appropriately trained on all applicable policies, including a sanctions compliance policy.

Ethan Heller, a law clerk in our New York office, also contributed to this article.