The U.K. government is looking to increase its regulation of digital currencies, amid growing concerns that such virtual currencies are being used to enable money laundering, terrorist funding, and other criminal activity.
Stephen Barclay, economic secretary for HM Treasury, said in a written parliamentary statement in November that the U.K. government is “currently negotiating amendments to the 4th Anti-Money Laundering Directive that will bring virtual currency exchange platforms and custodian wallet providers into Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorist Financing regulation, which will result in these firms’ activities being overseen by national competent authorities for these areas.”
Introducing new regulations for digital currencies—Bitcoin, in particular—would shake up the industry, as parties involved in such transactions are typically anonymous. “Digital currencies are the preferred method of online payment for illicit commodities, including firearms and drugs,” HM Treasury stated in a “U.K. national risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing report” issued in 2015.
Most dark-web websites “have payment systems reliant on digital currencies because of the perceived anonymity of these types of payment product,” HM Treasury stated.
Exacerbating the risk of virtual currencies is that many still have a limited understanding of how digital currencies are used for money laundering. A limited number of case studies provide “any solid conclusions…that digital currencies are used for money laundering,” HM Treasury stated.
The HM Treasury report continued: “There is little evidence to indicate that the use of digital currencies has been incorporated into established money laundering techniques (such as trade-based money laundering), through which ‘traditional’ (non-cyber) criminals and money laundering specialists working on behalf of ‘traditional’ crime groups currently launder illicit funds.”
In his statement to parliament, Barclay said that the government “supports the intention” behind the amendments to the 4th Anti-Money Laundering Directive and expects these negotiations to conclude in late 2017 or early 2018.
It’s incumbent on compliance officers in the financial services industry to pay attention to these developments and remain vigilant in updating their anti-money laundering compliance programs, given that criminals are always finding new ways to exploit new products and services.