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Bitcoin dealer gets two-year prison sentence for unlicensed cryptocurrency exchange

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The man says he started off with a legal exchange but his account was shut down

Photo by Michele Doying / The Verge

A 22-year-old man has been sentenced to two years in prison for selling unlicensed bitcoins. His crime was operating a bitcoin exchange without registering with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the US Department of Treasury.

Jacob Burrell Campos, a US citizen and Mexico resident, has been held in custody without bail since August 2018. He pleaded guilty in October 2018, admitting that he employed no anti-money laundering measures and didn’t check up on details about his customers and where their money came from.

Burrell wasn’t accused of explicitly committing criminal activities such as stealing or scamming clients, but simply having an unlicensed exchange was enough to earn him two years in prison. Burrell advertised his business on localbitcoins.com and often used encrypted apps to text his customers. He sold bitcoins at 5 percent above the usual exchange rate and received payments in cash, potentially making his service attractive to money-launderers.

Burrell claims to have started as a customer of a US-based, regulated bitcoin exchange, but saw his account shut down after a large volume of suspicious transactions raised red flags. He then turned to Bitfinex, an exchange in Hong Kong that is also being investigated by US authorities, before finally launching his own illegal exchange in 2016. During those years, Burrell exchanged his US cash that he stored in Mexico with an accomplice who dealt in precious metals, and together they imported over $1 million in cash into the US.

The US Justice Department has ruled that Burrell gave his clients “anonymity and privacy and exchanged over $1 million in unregulated cash,” potentially allowing criminals to launder cash without scrutiny.