In late October, a New York district court refused to dismiss the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) indictment against defendant Nathaniel Chastain, who was charged with wire fraud and money laundering relating to his using insider knowledge to purchase non-fungible tokens (NFTs) prior to them being featured on OpenSea, an online NFT marketplace, and later selling them at a profit. (U.S. v. Chastain, No. 22-cr-305 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 21, 2022)). Despite the headlines and the fact that the DOJ’s press release labeled this enforcement as charges brought in “the first ever digital asset insider trading scheme,” the Chastain indictment was not actually based on the typical insider trading statutes involving securities law violations, but instead the federal wire fraud statute. Indeed, despite having an insider trading flavor, the word “security” does not appear in the indictment and the court, in refusing to dismiss the DOJ’s wire fraud claim, ruled that the Government’s wire fraud claim does not require the presence of a “security.”
With the enduring popularity of certain NFTs and the promise of their use in the Metaverse and beyond, the hype around the new technology has been accompanied by rising concerns over NFTs being the centerpiece of traditional financial crimes like money laundering and wire fraud. For example, on June 30th, 2022 the Justice Department indicted six individuals in four separate cryptocurrency fraud cases, which altogether involved over $130 million of investors’ funds. These indictments include allegations of a global Ponzi scheme selling unregistered crypto securities, a fraudulent initial coin offering involving phony associations with top companies, a fraudulent investment fund that purportedly traded on cryptocurrency exchanges, and the largest-known Non-Fungible Token (NFT) money laundering scheme to date.
In early March, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney unsealed indictments against the leaders of the Bulgarian-based “purported” cryptocurrency “OneCoin” on wire fraud, money laundering and federal securities fraud charges relating to an alleged $3 billion pyramid scheme devised to market OneCoin. OneCoin’s lawyer has also been charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering for allegedly conducting financial transactions with some of the proceeds of the scheme to conceal the unlawful activities.