By Sarah Marsh
(Reuters) – BitPay, one of the biggest cryptocurrency payment processors, will pay $507,375 to settle its potential civil liability for apparent violations of U.S. sanctions on countries like Cuba, North Korea and Iran, the U.S. Treasury Department said.
Digital currencies, which are mostly unregulated, decentralized and anonymous, have gained popularity in recent years, especially in countries under U.S. and other sanctions, where they are seen as a way of getting around the global financial system.
Bitcoin touched a market capitalization of $1 trillion as it hit yet another record high on Friday, with world’s most popular cryptocurrency hitting an all-time high above $54,000. It has surged roughly 64% so far this month alone, fueled by signs it is gaining acceptance among mainstream investors and companies.
The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said late on Thursday that it had detected 2,102 instances between 2013 and 2018 in which BitPay had allowed people apparently located in sanctioned countries to conduct transactions worth around $129,000 in total with merchants in the United States and elsewhere.
OFAC acknowledged that BitPay had implemented sanctions compliance controls as early as 2013 but it should have better screened the information it had on customers location through Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and other data it had access to.
“This action emphasizes that OFAC obligations apply to all U.S. persons, including those involved in providing digital currency services,” OFAC said in a statement.
BitPay said it had continued to improve its compliance program during the transaction period and since.
“Since our founding, our commitment to compliance has been continuous and unwavering,” a company spokesman told Reuters.
The illegal use of cryptocurrencies has long worried regulators and law enforcement, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde both calling for tighter oversight last month.
Increasing regulation is a blow people in countries like Cuba, cut off from conventional international payment systems and financial markets by the decades-old U.S. trade embargo, although traders say they will find a way around it.
While digital currencies are often thought of as a form investment, in Cuba some ordinary citizens buy them to make purchases online as well as to receive remittances.
“It’s the country in the Caribbean with most crypto activity,” said Alex Sobrino, founder of the group CubaCripto on different social media platforms where Cubans debate and trade digital currencies. “There are hundreds of thousands of Cubans using it.”
Reuters was unable to independently verify that figure.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Repoorting by Tom Wilson in London; Editing by Nick Zieminski)