On August 12, New York Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky issued a notice of inquiry about the “appropriate regulatory guidelines that [the NY DFS] should put in place for virtual currencies.”  The NY DFS notes the emergence of Bitcoin and other virtual currency as the catalyst for its inquiry, and the notice states that the NY DFS already has “conducted significant preliminary work.” That preliminary work includes 22 subpoenas the NY DFS reportedly issued last week to companies associated with Bitcoin.

The NY DFS is concerned that virtual currency exchangers may be engaging in money transmission as defined in New York. Under existing New York law, and the laws of a majority of other states, companies engaged in money transmission must obtain a license, post collateral, submit to periodic examinations, and comply with anti-money laundering laws. However, the NY DFS also suggests that regulating virtual currency under existing money transmission rules may not be the most beneficial approach. Instead, it is considering “new guidelines that are tailored to the unique characteristics of virtual currencies.” The NY DFS notice does not provide any timeline for further action on these issues.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs is reviewing federal policy as it relates to virtual currencies. On August 12, the leaders of that committee, Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Tom Coburn (R-OK), sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano regarding federal virtual currency policy. The committee reportedly sent similar letters to the DOJ, the Federal Reserve Board, the Treasury Department, the SEC, the CFTC, and the OMB. Citing a federal court’s recent holding that Bitcoin is money or currency for the purpose of determining jurisdiction under the Securities Act of 1933, as well as other recent developments related to virtual currencies, the lawmakers seek information about (i) the agencies’ existing policies on virtual currencies, (ii) coordination among federal or state entities related to the treatment of virtual currencies, and (iii) “any plans,” “strategies,” or “ongoing initiatives” regarding virtual currencies. The letter specifically notes the importance of balancing the need to deal with “potential threats and risks . . . swiftly” with the goal of ensuring that “rash or uninformed actions don’t stifle a potentially valuable technology.”

This recent scrutiny of virtual currencies follows regulatory and enforcement actions taken earlier this year, including guidance issued by FinCEN and federal criminal charges against a digital currency issuer and money transfer system.