US regulator goes after Binance in newest crypto clash

CFTC accuses world's largest crypto exchange of selling digital assets to U.S. customers despite not being registered to do so.

·4 min read

The Commodities and Futures Trading Commission sued crypto exchange Binance and its CEO Changpeng Zhao for selling derivatives backed by digital assets to U.S. customers despite not being registered to do so, the latest effort by Washington to rein in cryptocurrency markets.

The suit, filed in federal court in Chicago, states that since July 2019 Binance has solicited and accepted orders and operated a facility for trading products such as futures and options that derive their value from cryptocurrencies. Binance is the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange. Binance has said it doesn't sell to customers in the U.S.

"The defendants’ own emails and chats reflect that Binance’s compliance efforts have been a sham and Binance deliberately chose–over and over–to place profits over following the law,” Gretchen Lowe, CFTC’s enforcement division principal deputy director and chief counsel, said in a statement.

Samuel Lim, Binance’s chief compliance officer, is also named in the suit for “willful and substantial assistance” in these activities. Shortly after the lawsuit became public, Binance's CEO tweeted the number "4" over from his account, which refers to an earlier goal for 2023 he has pinned to the top of his profile, "Ignore FUD, fake news, attacks, etc."

A spokeswoman for Binance said the lawsuit was "unexpected and disappointing," stating that Binance has worked "collaboratively with the CFTC for more than two years." She said it has made significant investments to ensure "we do not have U.S. users active on our platform," raising its compliance team to 750 from 100 and spending $80 million to bolster its compliance programs.

Cryptocurrencies bitcoin and ether are down more than 2% as of 1 pm ET, compared to the previous 24-hour period. The global market capitalization for all crypto assets fell 2.3% over that period.

Zhao Changpeng, founder and chief executive officer of Binance, attends the Viva Technology conference dedicated to innovation and startups at Porte de Versailles exhibition center in Paris, France June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Changpeng Zhao, founder of Binance. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

This is the latest of many recent high-profile clashes between a U.S. regulator and the larger crypto world.

The largest U.S. crypto exchange, Coinbase Global (COIN) said in a March 22 regulatory filing it received a Wells Notice from the Securities and Exchange Commission stating that SEC staff had made a "preliminary determination" to recommend an enforcement action for violations of federal securities laws. Coinbase, which does not offer commodities or derivatives in the U.S. to retail customers, said in a blog post last week that it was “confident in the legality of our assets and services."

The SEC has separately issued 11 enforcement actions since the beginning of January against crypto firms and individuals, including one last week that targeted crypto entrepreneur Justin Sun. Several claim certain cryptocurrencies or crypto products are securities.

All of these legal battles could help establish how, and whether, cryptocurrencies are regulated in the U.S. One key area of debate is whether certain digital currencies are commodities or securities and therefore fall under the oversight of the CFTC and the SEC. The CFTC in its suit stated that bitcoin, ether and litecoin are all commodities.

The CFTC said Binance's efforts to dodge U.S. regulators began in 2017. “Since the launch of its platform in 2017, Binance has taken a calculated, phased approach to increase its United States presence despite publicly stating its purported intent to “block” or “restrict” customers located in the United States,” the regulator said.

In August 2020, according to its suit, CFTC said Binance documents showed the exchange earned $63 million in transaction fees while approximately 16% of its accounts were owned by U.S. customers. Binance actively instructed U.S. customers for how they could circumvent the company’s restrictions by the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) as well as allowing customers to skate and submit a proof of identity or location, the suit said.

For certain “VIP” customers as well as key employees who controlled aspects of Binance’s trading derivatives trading operation, Zhao directed Lim to guide the company's VIP team to open accounts under the names of shell companies to evade compliance.

"Do not directly tell the user to run, just tell them their account has been unfrozen and it was investigated by XXX. If the user is a big trader, or a smart one, he/she will get the hint," Lim wrote to the team according to internal chat logs in the complaint that the CFTC accessed.

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