1. Introduction

Anti-money laundering (AML) is now seen as a top legislative and law enforcement priority in the UK, the U.S., and Europe. The current direction of travel is the culmination of a number of high-profile cases over the last decade where major financial institutions and other financial market participants have failed to prevent criminal funds from being “laundered” through their accounts. At a political level, there is also a rising awareness within American, British and European governments that repositories of “black cash”, concealed and dispersed through offshore financial systems and controlled by hostile state actors such as Russia, have been used in attempts to undermine democratic elections. The current crackdown on money laundering activity is evident in a number of significant criminal and regulatory enforcement actions concluded in 2020 and 2021, and in legislative reform efforts aimed at expanding the regulated sphere by forcing participants in other vulnerable markets (particularly art, antiquities and jewellery) to implement AML controls.

In many important ways, this enforcement trend appears to run counter to the exponential rise of cryptocurrency and its increasing prominence and acceptance by mainstream market participants. Demand for digital assets, including Bitcoin, Ethereum and others, keeps soaring. Bitcoin's scarcity and high stock-to-flow rate, in particular, make it an increasingly attractive asset for investors. As Bitcoin's journey towards the mainstream continues to push forward, important questions arise regarding how the uptake of cryptocurrency can be made compatible with basic AML control, such as the requirements for regulated market participants to check the identity and legitimate source of funds of their customers.

Cryptocurrency assets such as Bitcoin present unique challenges to the existing regulatory system. Bitcoin can be thought of as “pseudonymous” (rather than truly anonymous) in the sense that the components of Bitcoin, such as addresses, private and public keys, and transactions, are all read in text strings (for example, of a public address) that in no way directly link to anyone's personal identity. However, if an address is used on an exchange that implements the kind of basic identity checks used in the mainstream financial sector, such as Know Your Customer (KYC), then that address, in theory, can be linked back to a real-world identity.

This chapter explores some of the tensions and potential pitfalls inherent in cryptocurrencies' acceptance within the broader financial system, particularly the regulated financial sector and other regulated asset classes. Businesses are understandably interested to explore opportunities brought about by broadening acceptance of these assets, but great care needs to be taken to manage the increasing risk of regulatory, and even criminal, sanctions under AML legislation.

2. Growth in Virtual Currencies and Supporting Infrastructure

In a little over a decade, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have progressed from an idea many sophisticated investors dismissed as counterculture, to a financial phenomenon. With Bitcoin's market value reaching $1 trillion, and even Dogecoin, a virtual asset created as a joke, touching a valuation of $10 billion, it has been impossible for the financial, political and legislative establishment to dismiss the emerging asset class of virtual currencies. Even with little practical use for the currency at the moment, major hedge fund managers have joined in with heavyweight corporate investors like Tesla, Inc., and large Wall Street banks in the move towards supporting digital assets. A number of financial institutions are even recommending Bitcoin to retail investors, a growing number of whom have at least dabbled in the world of cryptocurrencies. While some banks have dipped their toes in the water by offering services including safekeeping and investment advice for virtual assets, earlier this year J.P. Morgan unveiled its offering of a digital coin that would allow for instantaneous payments using blockchain technology, JPM Coin. This may be the first of many.

Along with taking away some of the investment base from the conventional financial system, cryptocurrencies have taken advantage of the traditional stock exchange. Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange, listed on the Nasdaq earlier this month with an initial valuation of $100 billion, which puts it in the same league as heavyweights like Facebook. This for some has indicated a coming of age for cryptocurrencies. Others highlighted the post-listing slump in valuation as the epitome of a bubble. There also have been high-profile scams linked to cryptocurrencies, most notably the Ponzi scheme linked to Onecoin.1 In any event, with this speculative asset class becoming ever-increasingly linked to the traditional financial system through its subscribers and listings, regulators across the globe have been required to pay attention both to avoid a threat to financial stability and to close down any new avenues for financial crime.

3. Global AML Enforcement and Legislative Reform

Historically, the UK has been one of the more active jurisdictions worldwide in AML enforcement, from the time of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA) and antecedent legislation, AML enforcement by the UK authorities was active in 2020, and has continued into early 2021. A strong focus on AML enforcement, particularly targeting financial institutions and high-growth sectors such as cryptocurrencies and exchanges, appears to mirror developments in Europe and across the Atlantic, where the Biden administration is widely expected to usher in a more stringent regulatory environment in the financial sector.

4. UK AML Enforcement Post-Brexit

Prior to its departure from the European Union on 31 December 2020, the UK was a key player in developing the Europe-wide AML framework through EU legislation in the form of a succession of Money Laundering Directives. The existing Fifth Money Laundering Directive is already fully implemented in UK law. The UK has not opted into the EU's Sixth Money Laundering Directive, as the government considers that the requirements of this Directive are already effectively in place through the UK's existing AML legislative framework.

Building on the offence of failure to prevent bribery in the UK Bribery Act 2010, the UK is also actively considering expanding the scope of “failure to prevent” offences in the financial sector. There have been proposals to amend the Financial Services Bill so that businesses or individuals regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) would be held liable for failure to prevent economic crime, which would extend not just to money laundering, but also to fraud, false accounting, POCA offences, insider dealing, and providing false or misleading statements. A key development in 2021 will be the UK's decision on whether and how to implement a new offence of this nature. Such a development would have significant ramifications for financial institutions operating in the UK and their employees, particularly senior management.

Contrary to the expectations of some commentators, who predicted a post-Brexit slackening of AML enforcement, the UK authorities stepped up enforcement activities in the first months of 2021, including the commencement of criminal proceedings against a large financial institution, the levying of significant fines and an expansion of the scope of activities covered by existing regulations.

On 16 March 2021, the FCA announced that it had initiated criminal proceedings against the UK bank National Westminster Bank Plc (NatWest) for breaches of the Money Laundering Regulations 2007 (MLR 2007) in a period covering 2011 to 2016.2 The FCA alleges that NatWest failed to conduct risk-sensitive due diligence and ongoing monitoring of its relationships with a UK-incorporated customer for the purposes of preventing money laundering. The FCA alleges that increasingly large cash deposits were made into this customer's accounts. It is alleged that around £365 million was paid into the customer's accounts, of which around £264 million was in cash.

The case is significant as it is the first criminal prosecution under the MLR 2007 by the FCA and the first prosecution under the MLR against a bank. The fact that the FCA has chosen to bring proceedings under the MLR, rather than the specific AML offences set out in the POCA, suggests that the FCA has identified significant regulatory failures rather than acts of deliberate involvement in money laundering.

For financial institutions and market participants, this prosecution is a timely reminder that regulatory oversights can also potentially invoke criminal liability in the UK. The case will be closely followed to see the level of fine imposed and to compare civil and criminal regime penalties. Further enforcement action is expected in the near term, as the FCA announced in December 2020 that it is actively investigating 16 financial institutions for AML-related issues.

The UK tax authority HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is considered a supervisor for more than 30,000 businesses across the UK under the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017 (MLRs). In 2019 to 2020, HMRC recovered over £166 million from the proceeds of crime, of which more than £22 million was linked to money laundering offences. In January 2021, HMRC announced a record-breaking £23.8 million fine on MT Global Ltd., a UK-based money transfer service, for significant breaches of the Money Laundering Regulations 2017.3

5. U.S. AML Enforcement under the Biden Administration

In the United States, the AML landscape has also seen significant movement as the Biden administration indicates its intentions to ramp up enforcement in this area. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (NDAA), which was passed on 1 January 2021, will have a significant impact on the regulatory environment at the start of the new administration. Indeed, the NDAA is the most significant amendment to the AML landscape in a generation since the adoption of the U.S. Patriot Act, and will require extensive implementation by the Treasury Department.

The regulatory and legislative changes together have two principal themes: (i) a conscious effort to evolve AML compliance and the 1970 Bank Secrecy Act and its implementing regulations (collectively, the BSA) to make the system more efficient and more effective; and (ii) the adaptation of the BSA to a new generation of threats. The NDAA extends the rules of the BSA to cover other sectors including the art market, specifically antiques and art dealers. The bill aims to improve AML efforts by making it harder for purchasers to obscure their identities through offshore entities and shell companies by requiring investors and collectors to identify an “ultimate beneficial owner”. It remains to be seen how these businesses will synchronise these new requirements with recent acceptance of cryptocurrencies as a form of payment.

On 15 January 2021, it was announced that Capital One had agreed to pay a $390 million civil penalty to the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) after admitting to engaging in both wilful and negligent violations of the BSA.4 From 2008 to 2014, Capital One offered banking services to a group of between 90 and 150 cheque cashers in the New York/New Jersey area. The bank “was aware of several compliance and money laundering risks associated with banking with this particular group, including warnings by regulators, criminal charges against some of the customers, and internal assessments that ranked most of the customers in the top 100 of the bank's highest-risk customers for money laundering”.

6. Recent European AML Enforcement

In April 2021, ABN Amro was fined €480 million to resolve an investigation by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service (OM) into “serious shortcomings” in its AML procedures and other misconduct by its clients in the Netherlands between 2014 and 2020.5

The violations were so severe that the OM accused the bank itself of committing money laundering in addition to internal controls failures, such as: incomplete dossiers on high-risk customers; insufficient risk assessments on new clients; and failures to properly report suspicious transactions. Three former executives remain under investigation.

Danske Bank remains under criminal and regulatory investigation by authorities in France and Denmark. Danske Bank's Estonia branch was allegedly a key enabler of the Azerbaijani Laundromat, a huge money laundering scheme and slush fund that saw billions of dollars run through the bank and into offshore companies and paid to high-ranking officials and European politicians.6 Another investigation, the Russian Laundromat, revealed that $20 billion to $80 billion was fraudulently moved out of Russia through a network of global banks that included Danske Bank.

7. FCA Guidance

While cryptocurrencies were born into a regulatory sandbox to avoid over-regulation and allow for innovation, with the increased investment into this volatile asset class, the FCA assumed responsibility as the AML and counter-terrorist financing (CTF) supervisor for such firms. As of 9 January 2021, businesses operating in cryptoasset activity in the UK are required to comply with the MLRs.7 To assist the FCA in monitoring compliance, firms engaging in cryptoasset activities are required to register with the FCA before conducting business with the threat of civil or criminal enforcement. Cryptoasset activities have been broadly defined by the MLRs as:

  1. exchanging or arranging to exchange money for cryptoassets or vice versa, or one cryptoasset for another;
  2. operating machines that use automated processes to exchange cryptoassets for money, or vice versa; and
  3. providing services to safeguard or administer cryptoassets for customers or private cryptographic keys.8

As the official gatekeeper for businesses in/seeking to expand into the cryptoasset space, the FCA's registration requirement allows for confirmation that the company has adequate systems and controls for AML compliance, and its management is fit and proper to carry out such activities. To ensure this is the case, the application for registration requires a plethora of information including the organisational structure, key individuals involved in the business, beneficial owners, systems and controls (both IT and regulatory in relation to AML/CTF compliance), and any other governance arrangements including diligence related to client on-boarding and ongoing transaction monitoring. 

While it may be seen as a new asset class to regulate, the FCA has similar expectations in relation to AML monitoring that are in place for more conventional assets. The FCA has stated that it will take a risk-based approach to supervision. Therefore, the larger the potential for money laundering and terrorist financing, the more scrutiny a firm will receive and the higher the likelihood for FCA enforcement where misconduct is detected. Components of an effective compliance programme will also follow in the footsteps of conventional wisdom. These include ensuring that the business has policies, controls and procedures that effectively manage money laundering risks proportionate to the size and nature of the business' activities. Additionally, regular assessments of the governance system will need to be conducted with a specific focus on the impact that a change in the business' operating model may have on its risk profile. With the inherent volatility and requirement for a degree of anonymity imbedded in the basic structure of cryptoassets, businesses will be required to take an even greater proactive monitoring role. Some of the requirements, though not exhaustive, highlighted by the FCA include:

  • taking appropriate steps to identify and assess the risks of money laundering;
  • assess risks related to new technologies prior to launch and take appropriate steps to manage or mitigate such risk;
  • maintain policies, systems and controls appropriate for mitigating the risk of the business being used as a vehicle of illicit financial activity, particularly money laundering and terrorist financing. This may include creating an internal independent audit function with the responsibility of examining and evaluating the adequacy of safeguards or, where appropriate, appointing a member of senior management to be responsible for MLRs;
  • undertake adequate due diligence, including employee screening and customer due diligence (both at the onboarding stage and periodically thereafter). This may include applying more rigorous checks for customers who are considered a higher risk, including politically exposed persons; and
  • ensure ongoing monitoring of all customers and transactions to make sure that they are consistent with the business' knowledge of the client's risk profile.

Additionally, as part of the its supervisory toolkit, the FCA now requires businesses that may engage with cryptoassets that are outside the scope of the Financial Ombudsman Services or the Financial Services Compensation Scheme to inform potential clients of this prior to entering into a business relationship.

As above, the FCA's requirements from firms engaging in cryptoassets, for a large part, mirror the expectation for the broader market. It is therefore worthwhile to consider what the FCA has indicated would be effective systems and controls through enforcement actions and guidance. Most recently, a speech by Mark Steward, the Executive Director of Enforcement and Market Oversight, stated that: “AML systems and controls must be focused explicitly on activating purpose and function of those controls, to ensure the system is not just a bureaucratic process and to ensure it cannot be gamed.”9 This has given credence to the already well-founded understanding that an AML policy must be user-friendly, implemented in practice and show some teeth for a regulator to consider it to be fulfilling its purpose. Steward also laid a particular focus on cryptocurrency firms as the FCA will consider them to be a high priority and “area of risk”, bringing attention to the FCA's warning list that already has been put in place to flag firms that appear to be working in the cryptoasset space and that have not registered with the FCA.10

8. UK Enforcement

Recent FCA investment in enforcement capabilities

In 2018, the UK Government established a Cryptoassets Taskforce which comprised representatives from HM Treasury, the Bank of England and the FCA (the Taskforce). The Taskforce's report, which was published later that year, sought to set out, amongst other things, the UK's regulatory approach to cryptoassets.11 In the same year, the FCA published a notice on its ScamSmart webpage containing details about cryptoasset investment scams and how to identify and avoid them.12 Following the publication of the Taskforce's report, in January 2020 the FCA became the AML/CTF supervisor for cryptoasset firms. As a result, such firms had to register with the UK's financial regulator by January 2021 in order to ensure compliance with the relevant AML legislation. Since that appointment, it has been reported that during the course of 2020, 199 cryptoasset firms applied to register with the FCA.13 As of 19 April 2021, there were over 95 cryptoasset firms with Temporary Registration. Temporary Registration is a provisional measure introduced by the FCA to ensure that existing cryptoasset firms that have applied for registration are able to continue trading pending the outcome of their applications.14 Pursuant to the MLRs (as amended), it is a criminal offence for a cryptoasset firm to operate without being registered with the FCA.

Since the FCA's assumption of the role of AML/CTF supervisor of cryptoasset firms, it has undertaken a number of enforcement actions in this area. Last year, the FCA banned the sale of derivatives based on cryptocurrencies to retail investors as it deemed the practice too risky for retail consumers. In a statement on its website concerning the ban, the FCA stated that: “[S]ignificant price volatility, combined with the inherent difficulties of valuing cryptoassets reliably, places retail consumers at a high risk of suffering losses from trading crypto-derivatives. We have evidence of this happening on a significant scale. The ban provides an appropriate level of protection.”15 In February of this year, the FCA issued a statement warning against an unregistered firm that had been offering “trading services in digital currencies”.16 In the same month, it was reported that the FCA had opened 52 investigations into cryptocurrency businesses in the last year.17

In recent months the FCA also has commented publicly, in relatively strong terms, on the volatile nature of cryptoassets. In January of this year, the FCA stated that “if consumers invest in these types of product, they should be prepared to lose all their money”.18 Given the infancy of its regulatory remit in this field, it remains to be seen how, and to what extent, the FCA will enforce its powers in respect of non-compliant cryptoasset firms.

9. FCA Enforcement Powers

There are a number of regulatory tools available to the FCA, of which enforcement is one. The FCA will refer an individual or firm to its Enforcement division and commence an investigation into that individual or firm in circumstances where it considers that there has been potential serious misconduct. While the FCA states that not all harm is caused by serious misconduct, it notes that “serious misconduct will likely cause harm to market integrity, confidence in the financial system or cause harm to consumers”.19 When selecting cases to investigate, the FCA's Enforcement Guide states that it will consider whether such an investigation is likely to further its aims and objectives, by considering the following:

  1. any available supporting evidence and the proportionality and impact of opening an investigation;
  2. what purpose or goal would be served if the FCA were to end up taking enforcement action in the case; and
  3. relevant factors to assess whether the purposes of enforcement action are likely to be met.20

In the event that the FCA decides to take action against an individual or firm, it has an extensive range of civil, criminal and regulatory enforcement powers at its disposal. These include:

  • withdrawing a firm's authorisations;
  • prohibiting an individual from carrying on regulated activities;
  • suspending firms and individuals from undertaking regulated activities;
  • issuing fines against individuals and firms for breaching FCA rules or committing market abuse;
  • issuing fines against firms for breaching competition laws;
  • making public announcements when the FCA commences disciplinary action against individuals or firms, and when the FCA publishes details relating to enforcement notices (which include warning notices, decision notices and final notices). Following enforcement action, the FCA will often publish a press release;
  • making court applications for injunctions, restitution orders, winding-up orders and other insolvency orders;
  • commencing criminal prosecutions in relation to the commission of offences relating to financial crime. When considering this option, the FCA will need to be satisfied that the Full Code Test is met;
  • issuing warnings and alerts about unauthorised individuals and firms; and
  • requesting that web hosts deactivate websites.21

The FCA employs its criminal enforcement powers far less frequently than its civil and regulatory enforcement powers. Indeed, in its Enforcement Annual Performance Report for 2018/2019, it recorded that of the 288 outcomes that it secured using its enforcement powers, 12 of those outcomes related to criminal disposals.22

10. Enforcement Relating to Other UK Prosecuting Agencies

As well as the FCA, other UK enforcement agencies are beginning to focus their efforts on cryptocurrencies being used as a vehicle for fraud. While at present, it appears that the number of cases prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) involving cryptocurrencies is small in comparison to the total number of prosecutions brought by the CPS, it is anticipated that over the next year and beyond the number of prosecutions involving cryptocurrencies will increase. Indeed, the CPS recently stated that 86% of reported fraud “is now estimated to be cyber enabled, fuelled by advances in technology”. The CPS released such data as it launched its first Economic Crime Strategy (the Strategy) in March 2021, recognising economic crime “as a growing area of criminality”. The Strategy sets out the CPS' plan to tackle economic crime over the next five years. During the previous financial year, the CPS prosecuted 10,000 cases relating to economic crime.23 Similarly, in light of the increasing number of high-profile endorsements of cryptoassets which are likely to continue to drive interest in and demand for such assets, the National Crime Agency and Serious Fraud Office are likely to see an increase in the number of its investigations involving cryptoassets.

11. Summary and Key Takeaways

  • Cryptocurrency is an increasingly important growth area, but it is fundamental that companies invest in robust internal controls to stay on the right side of UK regulators.
  • AML will be the big focus for regulators and for criminal enforcement over the next few years.
  • Emerging cryptocurrency businesses have a number of inherent vulnerabilities that make them an especially ripe target for regulatory enforcement: technical challenges in managing the pseudonymous nature of cryptoassets to conform with AML KYC requirements; underinvestment in risk functions (a blind spot shared with other “disruptor” business models); and others.
  • Cryptocurrency companies must obtain the right advice to design their internal controls and to assist with their external communications with regulators and law enforcement.

The days of cryptocurrency operating in the Wild West are over. The sheriff has arrived in town, and times are changing.


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7. Regulation 14A of the MLRs defines cryptoasset activities as: (1) exchanging or arranging to exchange cryptoassets for money or one type of cryptoasset for another; (2) operating a machine such as a crypto ATM that uses automated processes to exchange cryptoassets into money, or vice versa; and (3) providing custodian services for customers' cryptoassets or private cryptographic keys. 

8. For further information on the types of cryptoassets that fall within the FCA's regulatory remit, see Guidance on Cryptoassets: Feedback and Final Guidance to CP 19/3, (Hyperlink)

9. Speech by Mark Steward, Executive Director of Enforcement and Market Oversight, delivered at the AML & ABC Forum 2021, 1 April 2021: (Hyperlink)

10. Unregistered Cryptoasset Businesses, (Hyperlink)

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17. The FCA's year end is 30 June.  This information was released by the FCA following a Freedom of Information Request by Reynolds Porter Chamberlain LLP.

18. (Hyperlink)

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20. Section 2.2.8.


22.(Hyperlink) (see page 5).


Originally published by International Comparative Legal Guides (ICLG).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.