The Justice Department is now cracking down on cryptocurrency scams

The U.S. Department of Justice is now working with the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission to launch a criminal investigation to determine if cryptocurrency traders are manipulating prices using illegal practices. The news arrives by way of four unnamed people close to the federal probe who state that the private investigation is now underway and in its early stages. 

According to the sources, federal prosecutors are determining if traders are using a tactic called spoofing, which is the act of flooding the market with fake orders to increase demand and drive prices upward, and then canceling those orders. Another tactic is wash trading where a cheater trades with himself/herself to artificially inflate market demand, driving up prices. 

The lure of cryptocurrency is that it’s not tied to any bank or government. At the same time, digital coins are not regulated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), thus traders are essentially on their own, unprotected against a Wild West-like market. There is no real guarantee that cryptocurrency exchanges are actively pursuing cheaters, and there are no means of recovering lost monies stemming from fake cryptocurrency startups. 

A good example of the current cryptocurrency woes is the initial coin offering (ICO). Companies promising to launch a new cryptocurrency platform will offer “valuable” tokens in exchange for early investments — something akin to Kickstarter where projects enlist financial backers that receive a product in the end. In this case, cryptocurrency startups are disappearing with the cash instead of launching their digital coin platforms. 

By March, these ICO-related scams reached to the point that the SEC opened investigations to crack down on companies, lawyers, and advisory firms promoting these ICOs. The government agency believes all virtual currencies should be listed as securities — a tradable financial asset that gains worth over time — and registered with regulators. There are securities laws in place to protect investors against fraud. 

Despite the growing interest in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, the market is considered volatile. For instance, a single Bitcoin was worth $6,897 on November 6, 2017, skyrocketed to $17,549 just over a month later, then dropped back down to $7,964 at the beginning of February. Since then, the value of a Bitcoin has experienced rises and drops resembling mountain peaks. 

The current Bitcoin slump reportedly stems from nations such as Japan and the Philippines now regulating cryptocurrency. China is banning cryptocurrency exchanges altogether. Even more, Microsoft and Google are banning cryptocurrency-related advertisements from their ad networks due to the unregulated, volatile nature of digital currency and the related scams. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) doesn’t regulate the actual trading of digital coins (aka spot markets), but instead deals with futures, which are legal agreements to purchase or sell an item at a set price on a set date in the future. The agency also deals with options, which are contracts providing buyers the right to buy or sell an asset for a specific price on a specified date. 

Still, the CFTC is capable of imposing sanctions if it discovers fraud in spot markets. 

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