The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network ("FinCEN") is issuing this interpretive guidance to clarify the applicability of the regulations implementing the Bank Secrecy Act ("BSA") to persons creating, obtaining, distributing, exchanging, accepting, or transmitting virtual currencies.1 Such persons are referred to in this guidance as "users," "administrators," and "exchangers," all as defined below.2 A user of virtual currency is not an MSB under FinCEN's regulations and therefore is not subject to MSB registration, reporting, and recordkeeping regulations. However, an administrator or exchanger is an MSB under FinCEN's regulations, specifically, a money transmitter, unless a limitation to or exemption from the definition applies to the person. An administrator or exchanger is not a provider or seller of prepaid access, or a dealer in foreign exchange, under FinCEN's regulations.Currency vs. Virtual Currency
FinCEN's regulations define currency (also referred to as "real" currency) as "the coin and paper money of the United States or of any other country that [i] is designated as legal tender and that [ii] circulates and [iii] is customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in the country of issuance."3 In contrast to real currency, "virtual" currency is a medium of exchange that operates like a currency in some environments, but does not have all the attributes of real currency. In particular, virtual currency does not have legal tender status in any jurisdiction. This guidance addresses "convertible" virtual currency. This type of virtual currency either has an equivalent value in real currency, or acts as a substitute for real currency. Background
On July 21, 2011, FinCEN published a Final Rule amending definitions and other regulations relating to money services businesses ("MSBs").4 Among other things, the MSB Rule amends the definitions of dealers in foreign exchange (formerly referred to as "currency dealers and exchangers") and money transmitters. On July 29, 2011, FinCEN published a Final Rule on Definitions and Other Regulations Relating to Prepaid Access (the "Prepaid Access Rule").5 This guidance explains the regulatory treatment under these definitions of persons engaged in virtual currency transactions. Definitions of User, Exchanger, and Administrator
This guidance refers to the participants in generic virtual currency arrangements, using the terms "user," "exchanger," and "administrator."6 A user is a person that obtains virtual currency to purchase goods or services.7 An exchanger is a person engaged as a business in the exchange of virtual currency for real currency, funds, or other virtual currency. An administrator is a person engaged as a business in issuing (putting into circulation) a virtual currency, and who has the authority to redeem (to withdraw from circulation) such virtual currency.Users of Virtual Currency
A user who obtains convertible virtual currency and uses it to purchase real or virtual goods or services is not an MSB under FinCEN's regulations.8 Such activity, in and of itself, does not fit within the definition of "money transmission services" and therefore is not subject to FinCEN's registration, reporting, and recordkeeping regulations for MSBs.9Administrators and Exchangers of Virtual Currency
An administrator or exchanger that (1) accepts and transmits a convertible virtual currency or (2) buys or sells convertible virtual currency for any reason is a money transmitter under FinCEN's regulations, unless a limitation to or exemption from the definition applies to the person.10 FinCEN's regulations define the term "money transmitter" as a person that provides money transmission services, or any other person engaged in the transfer of funds. The term "money transmission services" means "the acceptance of currency, funds, or other value that substitutes for currency from one person and the transmission of currency, funds, or other value that substitutes for currency to another location or person by any means."11
The definition of a money transmitter does not differentiate between real currencies and convertible virtual currencies. Accepting and transmitting anything of value that substitutes for currency makes a person a money transmitter under the regulations implementing the BSA.12 FinCEN has reviewed different activities involving virtual currency and has made determinations regarding the appropriate regulatory treatment of administrators and exchangers under three scenarios: brokers and dealers of e-currencies and e-precious metals; centralized convertible virtual currencies; and de-centralized convertible virtual currencies.
a.E-Currencies and E-Precious Metals
The first type of activity involves electronic trading in e-currencies or e-precious metals.13 In 2008, FinCEN issued guidance stating that as long as a broker or dealer in real currency or other commodities accepts and transmits funds solely for the purpose of effecting a bona fide purchase or sale of the real currency or other commodities for or with a customer, such person is not acting as a money transmitter under the regulations.14
However, if the broker or dealer transfers funds between a customer and a third party that is not part of the currency or commodity transaction, such transmission of funds is no longer a fundamental element of the actual transaction necessary to execute the contract for the purchase or sale of the currency or the other commodity. This scenario is, therefore, money transmission.15 Examples include, in part, (1) the transfer of funds between a customer and a third party by permitting a third party to fund a customer's account; (2) the transfer of value from a customer's currency or commodity position to the account of another customer; or (3) the closing out of a customer's currency or commodity position, with a transfer of proceeds to a third party. Since the definition of a money transmitter does not differentiate between real currencies and convertible virtual currencies, the same rules apply to brokers and dealers of e-currency and e-precious metals.
b.Centralized Virtual Currencies
The second type of activity involves a convertible virtual currency that has a centralized repository. The administrator of that repository will be a money transmitter to the extent that it allows transfers of value between persons or from one location to another. This conclusion applies, whether the value is denominated in a real currency or a convertible virtual currency. In addition, any exchanger that uses its access to the convertible virtual currency services provided by the administrator to accept and transmit the convertible virtual currency on behalf of others, including transfers intended to pay a third party for virtual goods and services, is also a money transmitter.
FinCEN understands that the exchanger's activities may take one of two forms. The first form involves an exchanger (acting as a "seller" of the convertible virtual currency) that accepts real currency or its equivalent from a user (the "purchaser") and transmits the value of that real currency to fund the user's convertible virtual currency account with the administrator. Under FinCEN's regulations, sending "value that substitutes for currency" to another person or to another location constitutes money transmission, unless a limitation to or exemption from the definition applies.16 This circumstance constitutes transmission to another location, namely from the user's account at one location (e.g., a user's real currency account at a bank) to the user's convertible virtual currency account with the administrator. It might be argued that the exchanger is entitled to the exemption from the definition of "money transmitter" for persons involved in the sale of goods or the provision of services. Under such an argument, one might assert that the exchanger is merely providing the service of connecting the user to the administrator and that the transmission of value is integral to this service. However, this exemption does not apply when the only services being provided are money transmission services.17
The second form involves a de facto sale of convertible virtual currency that is not completely transparent. The exchanger accepts currency or its equivalent from a user and privately credits the user with an appropriate portion of the exchanger's own convertible virtual currency held with the administrator of the repository. The exchanger then transmits that internally credited value to third parties at the user's direction. This constitutes transmission to another person, namely each third party to which transmissions are made at the user's direction. To the extent that the convertible virtual currency is generally understood as a substitute for real currencies, transmitting the convertible virtual currency at the direction and for the benefit of the user constitutes money transmission on the part of the exchanger.
c.De-Centralized Virtual Currencies
A final type of convertible virtual currency activity involves a de-centralized convertible virtual currency (1) that has no central repository and no single administrator, and (2) that persons may obtain by their own computing or manufacturing effort.
A person that creates units of this convertible virtual currency and uses it to purchase real or virtual goods and services is a user of the convertible virtual currency and not subject to regulation as a money transmitter. By contrast, a person that creates units of convertible virtual currency and sells those units to another person for real currency or its equivalent is engaged in transmission to another location and is a money transmitter. In addition, a person is an exchanger and a money transmitter if the person accepts such de-centralized convertible virtual currency from one person and transmits it to another person as part of the acceptance and transfer of currency, funds, or other value that substitutes for currency.
Providers and Sellers of Prepaid Access
A person's acceptance and/or transmission of convertible virtual currency cannot be characterized as providing or selling prepaid access because prepaid access is limited to real currencies. 18
Dealers in Foreign Exchange
A person must exchange the currency of two or more countries to be considered a dealer in foreign exchange.19 Virtual currency does not meet the criteria to be considered "currency" under the BSA, because it is not legal tender. Therefore, a person who accepts real currency in exchange for virtual currency, or vice versa, is not a dealer in foreign exchange under FinCEN's regulations.