The SEC has opined that, depending on the facts and circumstances of each individual ICO, the virtual coins or tokens that are offered or sold may be securities. If they are securities, the offer and sale of these virtual coins or tokens in an ICO are subject to the federal securities laws.

It also issued a report of an investigation it conducted into the DAO (which is a Decentralized Autonomous Organization). Based on the investigation, and under the facts presented, the Commission has determined that DAO Tokens are securities under the Securities Act of 1933 (“Securities Act”) and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”). For more information on DAOs, read this whitepaper.

With respect to ICOs, the SEC issued an investor bulletin declaring, in part:

If you are thinking about participating in an ICO, here are some things you should consider.

Depending on the facts and circumstances, the offering may involve the offer and sale of securities. If that is the case, the offer and sale of virtual coins or tokens must itself be registered with the SEC, or be performed pursuant to an exemption from registration. Before investing in an ICO, ask whether the virtual tokens or coins are securities and whether the persons selling them registered the offering with the SEC. A few things to keep in mind about registration:

If an offering is registered, you can find information (such as a registration statement or “Form S-1”) on SEC.gov through EDGAR.

If a promoter states that an offering is exempt from registration, and you are not an accredited investor, you should be very careful – most exemptions have net worth or income requirements.

Although ICOs are sometimes described as crowdfunding contracts, it is possible that they are not being offered and sold in compliance with the requirements of Regulation Crowdfunding or with the federal securities laws generally.

Ask what your money will be used for and what rights the virtual coin or token provides to you. The promoter should have a clear business plan that you can read and that you understand. The rights the token or coin entitles you to should be clearly laid out, often in a white paper or development roadmap. You should specifically ask about how and when you can get your money back in the event you wish to do so. For example, do you have a right to give the token or coin back to the company or to receive a refund? Or can you resell the coin or token? Are there any limitations on your ability to resell the coin or token?

If the virtual token or coin is a security, federal and state securities laws require investment professionals and their firms who offer, transact in, or advise on investments to be licensed or registered. You can visit Investor.gov to check the registration status and background of these investment professionals.

Ask whether the blockchain is open and public, whether the code has been published, and whether there has been an independent cybersecurity audit.

Fraudsters often use innovations and new technologies to perpetrate fraudulent investment schemes. Fraudsters may entice investors by touting an ICO investment “opportunity” as a way to get into this cutting-edge space, promising or guaranteeing high investment returns. Investors should always be suspicious of jargon-laden pitches, hard sells, and promises of outsized returns. Also, it is relatively easy for anyone to use blockchain technology to create an ICO that looks impressive, even though it might actually be a scam.

Virtual currency exchanges and other entities holding virtual currencies, virtual tokens or coins may be susceptible to fraud, technical glitches, hacks, or malware. Virtual tokens or virtual currency may be stolen by hackers.