FinCEN imposes $60m penalty on Helix and Coin Ninja founder
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has imposed a $60 million fine against Larry Dean Harmon, the founder, administrator, and primary operator of Helix and Coin Ninja, convertible virtual currency “mixers,” or “tumblers”. The fine stems from violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and its implementing regulations.
Harmon operated Helix as an unregistered money services business (MSB) from 2014 to 2017 and Coin Ninja from 2017 to 2020. FinCEN notes that Mr Harmon is currently being prosecuted in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on charges of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and the operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business in connection with his operation of Helix.
As FinCEN clarified in its 2013 Guidance, exchangers and administrators of convertible virtual currency are money transmitters under the BSA. As such, they have an obligation to register with FinCEN; to develop, implement, and maintain an anti-money laundering compliance program; and to meet all applicable reporting and recordkeeping requirements. FinCEN issued further clarification in 2019 that financial institutions that are mixers and tumblers of convertible virtual currency must also meet these same requirements.
Harmon, doing business as Helix and Coin Ninja, operated as an exchanger of convertible virtual currencies by accepting and transmitting bitcoin through a variety of means. From June 2014 through December 2017, Helix conducted over 1,225,000 transactions for its customers and was associated with virtual currency wallet addresses that sent or received over $311 million. FinCEN’s investigation has identified at least 356,000 bitcoin transactions through Helix.
Harmon operated Helix as a bitcoin mixer, or tumbler, and advertised its services in the darkest spaces of the Internet as a way for customers to anonymously pay for things like drugs, guns, and child pornography. Harmon subsequently founded, and acted as Chief Executive Officer of, Coin Ninja, which operated as an unregistered MSB and in the same manner as Helix.
FinCEN’s investigation has shown that Harmon willfully violated the BSA’s registration, program, and reporting requirements by failing to register as a MSB, failing to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering program, and failing to report suspicious activities.
Specifically, the investigation demonstrated that Harmon deliberately disregarded his obligations under the BSA and implemented practices that allowed Helix to circumvent the BSA’s requirements. This included a failure to collect and verify customer names, addresses, and other identifiers on over 1.2 million transactions. Harmon, operating through Helix, actively deleted even the minimal customer information he did collect. The investigation also revealed that Harmon engaged in transactions with narcotics traffickers, counterfeiters and fraudsters, as well as other criminals.