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Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell Delivers Remarks at the ABA’s National Institute on Bitcoin and Other Digital Currencies


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you Nina [Marino] for that kind introduction.

It is a pleasure to address today’s ABA National Institute on Bitcoin and Other Digital Currencies.  As head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, I am privileged to lead over 600 attorneys who investigate and prosecute federal crime, help develop criminal law and formulate law enforcement policy.  Our talented prosecutors perform crucial work in many of the areas relevant to today’s discussion, including the fight to combat money laundering, financial fraud, child exploitation and cybercrime.

This afternoon, I’d like to discuss the department’s approach to the emerging virtual currency landscape, our ongoing efforts to prosecute those who commit crimes by using virtual currency, and our view that compliance and cooperation from exchanges, companies and other market actors can ensure that emerging technologies are not misused to fund and facilitate illicit activities.

The department is aware of the many legitimate actual and potential uses of virtual currency.  It has the potential to promote a more efficient online marketplace.  It also potentially can lower costs for brick and mortar businesses, by removing the need to pay credit card-related costs.  And in theory, it can help speed and reduce the cost of cross-border transactions.  But we also have seen that criminals have been among the first to enthusiastically embrace the use of virtual currency, primarily in crime involving the internet.

Many of the inherent features of virtual currencies are exactly what makes them attractive to criminals.  Many criminals like virtual currency systems because these systems conduct transfers quickly, securely and with a perceived level of anonymity.  For others, the irreversibility of payments made in virtual currency and lack of oversight by a central financial authority is appealing.  Finally, the ability to conduct international peer-to-peer transactions that lack immediately available personally identifying information has made decentralized virtual currency attractive to those who wish to cover their money trail. 

As a result, virtual currency facilitates a wide range of traditional criminal activities as well as sophisticated cybercrime schemes.

Much of the illicit conduct involving virtual currency occurs through online black markets such as the now-shuttered Silk Road, which operated on an anonymized “dark web” network that masked users’ physical locations, making them difficult to track.  Similar online black markets continue to operate, offering on a global scale, a wide selection of illicit goods and services.  While these have included more traditional crimes such as narcotics trafficking, stolen credit card information, and hit-men for hire, we have also seen a significant evolution in criminal activity. 

For example, Bitcoin has been utilized to fund the production of child exploitation material through online crowd-sourcing – a development rarely seen before the prevalence of virtual currency.  It has also been used to buy and sell lethal toxins over the internet and as a payment method for virtual kidnapping and extortion, allowing near-instantaneous transactions across the globe between perpetrators of phishing and hacking schemes and their victims.

Despite the significant challenges in investigating, much less prosecuting, this activity, the department already has a strong record of bringing cases in which virtual currencies were used to facilitate criminal conduct.  While the burgeoning assortment of online exchanges, virtual currencies and virtual marketplaces has created a complex and evolving environment or “ecosystem” as this audience knows it, we too are keeping pace and will pursue those who exploit vulnerabilities in that ecosystem for illegal gain.

In this arena, we rely principally on money services business, money transmission and anti-money laundering statutes.  While individual users who are not acting as exchangers or transmitters are not required to register with FinCEN, many virtual currency systems, exchangers and related services are.  Additionally, most states also require money transmitters to obtain a state license in order to conduct business in that state, and some like New York have established virtual-currency specific licensing requirements.  Any failure to register or obtain a license may subject a money transmitter to criminal prosecution, and a money transmitter that knowingly moves funds connected to a criminal offense also faces prosecution for money laundering, regardless of licensing status.  Whether the currency involved is virtual or traditional, the department enforces these critical laws to prosecute money services businesses that engage in money laundering or facilitate crime by flouting registration and licensing requirements.

The department’s enforcement actions have evolved along with the virtual currency ecosystem.  Our first major action against a virtual currency service used for illicit purposes was in 2007, when the Criminal Division’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section (AFMLS), together with our Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS), spearheaded the prosecution against e-Gold and its owners on charges related to money laundering and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business.  E-Gold was a popular online currency exchange, and was a favored hub for cybercriminals in part because of the lack of account holder identity verification.  An e-mail address was the only information needed to set up an account, allowing global anonymous transactions.  After a multi-agency investigation, e-Gold and three associated individuals pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of money laundering and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business.

In the wake of e-Gold’s demise, the virtual currency system Liberty Reserve was created.  As alleged in our pending indictment, Liberty Reserve was structured and operated to help users conduct illegal transactions anonymously and launder the proceeds of their crimes.

Liberty Reserve quickly became one of the principal money transfer agents used by cybercriminals around the world to distribute, store and launder the proceeds of their illegal activity.  Like e-Gold, any would-be account holder needed little more than a working email address to move funds around the globe.  Again, this virtual currency platform became a favorite of cybercriminals and other tech-savvy wrongdoers, enabling them to engage in anonymous financial transactions, all conducted in violation of BSA requirements.

Before the government shut down Liberty Reserve in 2013, it had accumulated more than one million users worldwide, including more than 200,000 in the United States, who conducted approximately 55 million transactions through its system totaling more than $6 billion in funds.  These funds included suspected proceeds of credit card fraud, identity theft, investment fraud, computer hacking, child pornography, narcotics trafficking and other crimes. 

In a case jointly spearheaded by AFMLS and prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, several of Liberty Reserve’s top executives, including a co-founder of the company, the IT Manager and its Chief Technology Officer, have pleaded guilty to money laundering and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business and have been sentenced up to five years in prison.  The creator of Liberty Reserve was extradited to the United States from Spain in October 2014 and is currently awaiting trial, where he is, of course, presumed innocent. 

The department has also taken action against a number of individuals and groups who sought to exploit decentralized systems such as Bitcoin and anonymized dark web servers to finance illicit trade and activity in online black markets.

The first major prosecution of a dark market website was by the Southern District of New York in a case against Ross Ulbricht, aka “Dread Pirate Roberts,” who was arrested in October 2013 and convicted by a jury for his role in creating and operating Silk Road, an online black market whose payment operations exclusively used Bitcoin. 

Silk Road – designed to act as a black-market bazaar completely free from government regulation and oversight – attempted to enable its users to exchange illegal drugs and other unlawful goods and services anonymously and beyond the reach of law enforcement.  It emerged as one of the most extensive criminal marketplaces on the internet.  Before it was dismantled by law enforcement, Silk Road was used by thousands of drug dealers and other vendors to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs and other unlawful goods and services to well over a 100,000 buyers, and has been linked to at least six overdose deaths around the world.  Further, Silk Road was also used to launder hundreds of millions of dollars derived from these unlawful transactions.  And just a few weeks ago, in a federal courtroom in New York City, Ulbricht was sentenced to a term of life in prison – a cautionary tale for all those who would use dark spaces on the internet to flout the law.

The Silk Road story, however, did not end with Ross Ulbricht.  Two federal agents, sworn to uphold the law, were also apparently lured by the perceived anonymity of virtual currency.    

Carl Force, a Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Shaun Bridges, a Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service, were both assigned to the Baltimore Silk Road Task Force, which investigated illegal activity in the Silk Road marketplace.

Force served as an undercover agent.  According to court documents, Force went rogue and developed additional online personas to engage in complex bitcoin transactions to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government and from the targets of the investigation.  Independently, Bridges also allegedly engaged in an even larger direct theft, illegally diverting over $800,000 in virtual currency to his personal account.

Both individuals have been charged by the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and prosecutors from the Northern District of California with wire fraud, theft of government property and money laundering.  These investigations and prosecutions should send a strong message to those who would exploit technology to commit crimes: no matter how anonymous people might feel using virtual currency, their actions are not untraceable.  People should not assume that law enforcement will not notice when they act on the dark web, or that we are not keeping up with emerging technology.  Our successful prosecutions have shown that neither the supposed anonymity of the dark web nor the use of virtual currency is an effective shield from arrest and prosecution.

In addition to the operators of Silk Road and the drug traffickers who conducted their deals online in bitcoin, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York have also taken action against those who enabled this activity through the operation of Bitcoin currency exchanges.  We understand that there are legitimate exchanges, and many of those are working closely with FinCEN and other regulators to ensure compliance with the law.  But there are also many exchanges that don’t concern themselves with following the law.

From approximately December 2011 to October 2013, Robert Faiella ran an underground Bitcoin exchange on the Silk Road website under the alias “BTCKing,” and sold bitcoin to users to fund their purchases on the site.

Faiella would run bitcoin orders through Charlie Shrem, who operated a New York-based company that acted as a bitcoin to fiat currency exchange.  Although Shrem was the company’s Anti-Money Laundering Officer and had registered the company with FinCEN as a money services business, Shrem failed to report any of BTCKing’s activity, despite knowing it was being used for illegal purchases.  Shrem’s assistance enabled BTCKing to finance Silk Road transactions without collecting any personal identifying information from customers.  Faiella pleaded guilty to operating an unlicensed money transmitting business involving funds he knew were intended to support unlawful activity, and Shrem pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting Faiella’s operations.  Just this past winter, they were sentenced to four and two years in prison, respectively.

While these cases demonstrate that the criminal use of virtual currency has grown rapidly in recent years, its comparative scale versus traditional money laundering still pales in magnitude.  Few virtual systems currently can accommodate the hundreds of millions of dollars we have seen in certain large-scale money laundering schemes involving government-issued currency.  That said, as virtual currencies become more mature and better understood by criminals, we expect to see an increase in both individualized criminal activity and large-scale money laundering enterprises.

In some ways, companies and individuals operating in the virtual currency ecosystem are at a crossroads, and they have an opportunity to help virtual currency emerge from its association with criminal activities.  While there obviously are good and legitimate reasons to use these currencies, industry participants are now on notice that criminals too, make regular use of them.  So, to ensure the integrity of this ecosystem and prevent its penetration by crime, the industry must raise the level of its game on the compliance front. 

That includes strict compliance with money services business regulations and anti-money laundering statutes.  I understand that you have heard from our partners at FinCEN this morning about our collaborative efforts to investigate and enforce anti-money laundering laws, and you’ll also hear more from Katie Haun this afternoon about the investigation of the virtual currency business Ripple Labs, which operated an unlicensed money transmitting business. 

Ripple sold a virtual currency called “XRP,” but failed for a time to register with FinCEN as a money service business and failed to establish and maintain appropriate anti-money laundering protections.  Importantly, the department resolved this investigation after Ripple agreed to a number of substantial remedial measures.  This includes cooperation in other ongoing investigations, a change in business model and oversight by independent auditors, an extensive look-back through their previous activities and development of an extensive compliance framework. 

The resolution with Ripple Labs underscores the importance of having a strong compliance program to ensure adherence to the law.  Virtual currency exchangers and other marketplace actors comprise the front line of defense against money laundering and other financial crime.  Robust compliance programs, such as those imposed on Ripple Labs, are essential to keeping crime out of our financial system.  If a money services business finds itself subject to a criminal investigation, we will look, as we do in all cases involving potential prosecution of a business entity, at the factors set forth in the Principles of Prosecution of Business Organizations, or Filip Factors.  Two of the Filip Factors in particular, the existence of an effective and well-designed compliance program and a company’s remedial actions, including steps to improve upon an existing compliance regime, are explicitly set forth as factors prosecutors should consider. 

As you know, there is no “one-size-fits-all” compliance program.  Rather, effective anti-money laundering and other compliance programs must be tailored to meet the circumstances, size, structure and risks encountered by each entity.  And virtual currencies, with their perceived anonymity, pose compliance risks that money transmitters such as Western Union do not face. Industry participants must address those risks, even when it may be costly to do so.

Just as in any other corporate investigation, when reviewing the conduct of, for example, an exchange, the department will examine whether a company has meaningfully addressed compliance.  We have resolved cases against many financial institutions and other entities, and are deeply familiar with hallmarks of a genuine compliance program.

We expect virtual currency businesses to take compliance risk as seriously as they take any other business risk.  Now, we recognize that new entrants in emerging fields may find that compliance requires a significant expenditure of resources, and we will be context-specific in analyzing appropriate compliance frameworks including consideration of the size and scope of the business.  But a real commitment to compliance is a must, particularly given the significant risks in the virtual currency market.  In the long run, investment in effective compliance programs will be well worth it, especially in the event that a company has to interact with law enforcement.

In many ways, I think that is a message that everybody gathered here today can appreciate.  As the virtual currency markets attempt to move past their association with the Silk Roads and Liberty Reserves of the online world, are used to finance legitimate activity, and are becoming increasingly subject to regulation, robust compliance with existing anti-money laundering laws and regulations is necessary – indeed, critical – to bolster the reliability and value of virtual currency.

The challenges posed by the cases I’ve described are not unique to the virtual currency world.  Indeed, these dark web criminals are merely using new tools to conduct the same old crimes, committing what is essentially street crime like drug trafficking and extortion, but over computer networks.

For those investors, exchanges and compliance officers who deal in virtual currency, compliance is of paramount importance.  Adherence to regulations and state license requirements can reduce the liability of corporations who invest or deal in virtual currency.  As seen with Ripple Labs, compliance and remediation can lead to a more favorable resolution of criminal investigations and adhering to anti-money laundering guidelines allows the legitimate use of virtual currency to grow and be responsive to infiltration and abuse by criminal elements.  While the department will aggressively investigate and prosecute criminal activity that is funded through virtual currency, money services businesses that fall under the department’s scrutiny can also receive credit for meaningful and sincere compliance efforts.

 Your compliance and cooperation will make it more difficult for those who seek to operate illicit and underground marketplaces and will be a key element for law enforcement to shed light on these illegal virtual currency transactions.  It also will help to ensure the continued viability of virtual currency systems in the future.

Thank you for the opportunity to address this year’s National Institute on Bitcoin and Other Virtual Currencies.

Updated June 26, 2015