June 03, 2013
Do Digital Currencies Need Bank Secrecy Act Regulations?
Nearly two years ago, a Portals and Rails post looked at digital currencies and posed the question, "Will the use of alternative currencies gain popularity in the criminal world?" It appears that the answer to the question is "yes." According to the recent indictment of a digital currency provider, the currency under question "was designed to give criminals a way to move money earned from credit card fraud, online Ponzi schemes, child pornography and other crimes without being detected by law enforcement," ultimately building up a $6 billion money laundering operation.
At the heart of the issue with this particular digital currency is its anonymous nature. Payment instruments that provide anonymity do attract the criminal element. Anonymity is a major reason cash remains king when it comes to payments for illicit activities. The anonymity that prepaid cards provided in their earlier years attracted the criminal element, which ultimately resulted in regulators attaching Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) regulations to these instruments.
There is no doubt that digital currency has benefits over paper and coins. The convenience of not having to lug around paper and coins is appealing to me, as is the fact that I wouldn't feel the need to scrub my hands after handling digital currency since it's no secret that paper money and coins are dirty. I am all for the success of digital currencies and can't wait for them to become more mainstream. But I believe that as long as any digital currency continues to support anonymity, it will be difficult for that to happen.
While regulation can stifle innovation, I believe that BSA/AML regulation of digital currencies could help increase the adoption of this type of payment instrument by the mainstream. One need look no further than the prepaid card industry to understand the potential impact. Many factors have played into that industry’s phenomenal growth rate, but the BSA/AML regulatory requirements also played a role by providing a credibility to prepaid cards that did not exist in their infancy.
What are your thoughts on the need for BSA/AML regulation of digital currencies?
By Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
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