Global money laundering watchdog has crypto in its sights

The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force will tell countries to tighten oversight of cryptocurrency exchanges.

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There is growing concern among international law enforcement agencies that cryptocurrencies are being used to launder the proceeds of crime [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Cryptocurrency firms will be subjected to rules to prevent the abuse of digital coins such as bitcoin for money laundering, a global watchdog said on Friday. The move marks the first worldwide regulatory attempt to constrain the rapidly growing sector.

The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a coalition of countries from the United States to China, told countries to tighten oversight of cryptocurrency exchanges to stop digital coins being used to launder cash.

The move reflects growing concern among international law enforcement agencies that cryptocurrencies are being used to launder the proceeds of crime.

Countries will be compelled to register and supervise cryptocurrency-related firms such as exchanges, which will have to carry out detailed checks on customers and report suspicious transactions, FATF said in a statement.

Simon Riondet, head of financial intelligence at Europol, the European police agency that coordinates cross-border investigations, told Reuters news agency that he has seen the growing use of cryptocurrencies in the laundering of criminal money.

Earlier this year, Europol broke up a Spanish drug cartel that laundered cash using two crypto ATMs, machines that issue cryptocurrencies for cash.

Riondet said cryptocurrencies were used to transfer money across borders, and to break down large criminal money transfers into smaller amounts that were harder to detect.

“We also have some investigation on the dark web in which the payments are made in cryptocurrencies, sometimes in bitcoin, and they are switching it to more anonymised cryptocurrencies,” he said.

So-called privacy coins such as Monero allow users to conceal nearly all details of their transactions.

The move by the FATF comes amid heightened concern about a sector that is championed by some as a means of shaking off government controls but that is seen by central banks as a potential threat to their status as guarantors of the financial system.

Virtual tokens

Earlier this week, Facebook prompted criticism from regulators and policymakers when it unveiled its plans for a cryptocurrency it dubbed Libra.

Three European central bankers have claimed oversight over Libra to ensure it would not jeopardise the financial system or be used to launder money.

Germany’s central bank chief, Jens Weidmann, said virtual tokens pegged to official currencies, known as stablecoins, could undermine banks if they become widely used.

The FATF’s move to tighten cryptocurrency oversight marks the first attempt to establish a global approach in regulating the $300bn coin trading market, supplementing a current patchwork of measures that range from Japan’s move to license exchanges to an outright ban in China.

Global Digital Finance, an industry body that represents crypto-related companies worldwide, said it welcomed the FATF rules. But Teana Baker-Taylor, its executive director, said FATF recommendations to compel firms to include details of senders and beneficiaries in cryptocurrency transactions could be difficult to meet.

“We are obviously going to comply,” Baker-Taylor told Reuters. “The challenge is asking for something that there is the technical facility to do.”

There is little available data on the scale of money laundering that involves cryptocurrencies. Given the relatively small scale of the coin market, it is likely to be a fraction of the money laundering that uses cash.

Although digital coins do not have the complete anonymity once believed – their movement can be traced on the blockchain technology that underpins them – numerous loopholes exist in identifying beneficial ownership.

Some cryptocurrency exchanges are seen to have lax standards on checking users’ identities, or on verifying the source of funds. 

Source: Reuters