Unpacking the Surge in SEC Crypto Enforcement Actions

SEC Crypto Enforcement

Short Answer:

SEC crypto enforcement refers to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s heightened regulatory actions targeting the cryptocurrency industry, aiming to ensure compliance, protect investors, and combat fraud within the rapidly evolving digital asset space.

Introduction & Background

The surge in SEC crypto enforcement actions in 2023 marks a pivotal shift in the regulatory landscape for cryptocurrencies, reflecting a broader crackdown aimed at ensuring compliance, protecting investors, and combating fraud within the digital asset space. As an attorney with over a decade of experience navigating complex legal frameworks in venture capital, M&A, and private equity transactions, I’ve closely monitored how these regulatory changes impact the crypto industry. 

Understanding the SEC’s evolving stance on crypto assets as securities and its implications for investor disclosures and registration requirements is crucial for anyone involved in or interested in the crypto space. The SEC’s application of the Howey Test to determine whether a crypto asset qualifies as a security underscores the importance of adhering to federal securities laws. My experience, particularly in dealing with the legal intricacies of high-stakes transactions, positions me to offer valuable insights into navigating the complex and rapidly changing regulatory environment that now defines the crypto industry.

Key Takeaways

  • SEC crypto enforcement actions targeting the crypto surged by 53% in 2023, reflecting a strategic focus on compliance, investor protection, and combating fraud, particularly in the wake of major industry collapses like FTX.

  • The SEC increasingly views crypto assets as securities, applying the Howey Test to impose federal securities laws on crypto entities, and emphasizing the need for proper registration and investor disclosures to avoid severe penalties.

  • Key SEC crypto enforcement actions have involved penalties against crypto firms for failing to register offerings, targeting exchanges, ICOs, and DeFi platforms, underscoring the expansive jurisdiction of the SEC and the importance of regulatory compliance in the crypto space.

The Escalation of SEC Crypto Enforcement

Enforcement actions against crypto firms by the SEC reached an all-time high in 2023, marking a 53% increase from the previous year. Such a surge in activity highlights the SEC’s aggressive approach to crypto regulation under Chair Gary Gensler. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, nearly half of these enforcement actions took place, marking the highest number in a single quarter to date. This enforcement surge was partly a reaction to the collapse of major crypto firms such as FTX, which highlighted systemic risks within the crypto industry.

With the SEC initiating 26 litigations in federal courts and 20 administrative actions in 2023, the landscape of crypto regulation has become more complex. The focus has shifted towards compliance and combating fraud, with several crypto firms finding themselves under the SEC’s spotlight. The shift signalled that the SEC’s jurisdiction over the crypto space was expanding, and enforcement actions were becoming a crucial tool in enforcing federal securities laws.

Recent Trends in SEC Crypto Enforcement Actions

Crypto firms experienced an unprecedented level of enforcement activities by the SEC in 2023, almost doubling since 2021, resulting in more than $281 million in monetary penalties. This surge in activity was most evident in the first quarter of the year, which saw the highest number of enforcement actions recorded in a single quarter. This trend is a clear indicator of the increasing regulatory scrutiny facing the crypto industry.

In 2023, the SEC escalated its cryptocurrency-related enforcement actions by over 50%, leading to 46 legal actions against digital-asset market participants. These legal actions and the resulting judicial responses indicate an evolving regulatory landscape requiring heightened scrutiny from crypto firms. This evolving landscape signals that crypto firms must remain vigilant and responsive to regulatory changes to avoid falling foul of federal securities laws.

Key Factors Driving the Increase

The SEC’s intensified enforcement actions in the crypto space were driven by a strategic focus on compliance over punitive measures. The SEC’s enforcement actions in 2023 were heavily focused on allegations of fraud, with nearly half involving such allegations. This focus demonstrates the SEC’s strong stance against deceptive practices in the cryptocurrency market.

The number of administrative proceedings related to cryptocurrencies more than tripled in 2023. This increase indicates a trend towards more direct regulatory engagements and efforts towards achieving settlements. For its 2023 agenda, the SEC concentrated on curbing fraud, reducing market manipulation, and improving investor information disclosure in the crypto industry. Firms are advised to anticipate expansive SEC oversight in the future, indicating an era of increased regulatory scrutiny.

The Role of Federal Securities Laws in SEC Crypto Enforcement

Digital assets as securities

Crypto enforcement heavily relies on federal securities laws. Regulators often view most crypto assets as securities, which typically requires these assets to be registered with the U.S. SEC if offered to the public or held by more than 500 retail investors. This view complicates the application of federal securities laws to crypto assets that may not have a traditional issuer or legal entity behind them.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has warned about the volatile and speculative nature of crypto asset and securities markets, stressing that numerous platforms trading these assets might not fully comply with federal securities regulations. This warning signals the need for crypto firms to ensure that they are fully compliant with federal securities laws to avoid SEC crypto enforcement actions.

Applying the Howey Test to Crypto Assets

The SEC uses the Howey Test as a pivotal tool to ascertain whether a crypto asset classifies as a security. It evaluates four criteria:

  1. Investment of money

  2. In a common enterprise

  3. With an expectation of profit

  4. Derived from the efforts of others

Bitcoin, for instance, is not considered a security as it does not solicit public funds for development and does not meet the Howey Test criteria for securities.

The SEC has heightened its focus on the application of the Howey test to crypto assets, particularly in recent years. During fundraising efforts like ICOs, the SEC has scrutinized various cryptocurrency projects through the Howey Test to assess if they qualify as securities. This increased focus underscores the need for crypto firms to ensure that they are in compliance with federal securities laws to avoid SEC enforcement actions.

Consequences of Non-Compliance

Failing to meet the SEC’s securities requirements can lead to legal action, massive fines, and operational cessation orders, impacting a wide range of crypto entities. Crypto assets deemed as securities that fail to adhere to pertinent regulations risk being delisted from national securities exchanges or authorized ATSs, which can dry up liquidity and adversely affect investors.

The SEC has filed allegations against Coinbase, claiming the exchange illicitly earned billions by allowing the trading of crypto asset securities without proper regulatory registration. As an investment company, Genesis Global Capital, LLC and Gemini Trust Company, LLC were charged by the SEC for the unauthorized offer and sale of securities via the Gemini Earn crypto asset lending program. These cases underscore the importance of complying with SEC regulations and the consequences of non-compliance.

Notable SEC Crypto Enforcement Cases in the Industry

SEC enforcement case

The SEC has taken substantial enforcement actions against a variety of bad actors fromwithin the crypto industry. TradeStation Crypto, Inc., for example, settled charges with the SEC for failing to register a crypto lending product, leading to a $1.5 million penalty. ShapeShift AG agreed to a $275,000 settlement for operating an unregistered security exchange.

Promoters of crypto assets, such as those tied to Tronix (TRX) and BitTorrent (BTT), have been charged by the SEC for touting unregistered securities. In the HyperFund case, the SEC took action against a pyramid scheme that collected over $1.7 billion. These cases highlight the range of enforcement actions the SEC has taken in the crypto industry and the potential penalties for non-compliance.

Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)

Enforcement actions related to Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) have seen an increase, with a particular focus on combating fraudulent activity and ensuring compliance with securities laws, including the Investment Company Act. More than a third of the SEC crypto enforcement actions have been related to ICOs. However, the portion of enforcement actions related to ICOs decreased to 37% in 2023, down from 47% in the previous year.

A significant number of ICO-related enforcement actions, 82% to be exact, involve allegations of fraudulent activity. Enforcement actions related to ICOs have resulted in over $281 million in penalties. In one notable case, individuals related to the Forsage platform were charged for a fraudulent crypto pyramid and Ponzi scheme raising over $300 million involving unregistered digital asset securities offerings. These cases demonstrate the SEC’s commitment to protecting investors and ensuring compliance with securities laws.

Crypto Exchanges and Trading Platforms

Crypto exchanges and trading platforms have faced significant challenges due to the SEC’s crypto enforcement actions. The SEC charged Kraken with operating as an unregistered securities exchange, broker, dealer, and clearing agency. Similarly, Coinbase was charged by the SEC for operating its trading platform as an unregistered national securities exchange, broker, and clearing agency.

Coinbase’s failure to register with the SEC deprived investors of significant protections, prompting the SEC to seek remedies including injunctive relief and disgorgement of profits. These legal disputes revolve around whether traded crypto assets are securities, with implications for exchanges’ operations and investor protections.

ShapeShift AG, another crypto exchange, agreed to pay a $275,000 penalty to settle charges with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for operating as an unregistered dealer.

The Intersection of Crypto and Traditional Finance: ETFs and Broker-Dealers

Bitcoin ETFs regulation

The approval of Bitcoin ETFs by the SEC and the scrutiny of broker-dealer registration and compliance highlight the intersection of crypto investments and traditional finance. The SEC has authorized 11 Bitcoin ETFs, including high-profile funds such as the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust and Bitwise Bitcoin ETF. However, the SEC has also emphasized the need for more regulation and investor protections, given the highly volatile nature of crypto asset securities.

Broker-dealers in the crypto space are required by the SEC to strictly adhere to recordkeeping and reporting obligations as part of their operational compliance. The SEC crypto enforcement actions highlight the critical need for broker-dealers to maintain legal and regulatory compliance when offering crypto-related services. Non-compliance can have significant consequences, as seen in the case of Coinbase and other entities that faced enforcement actions.

Bitcoin ETFs

Bitcoin ETFs offer retail investors access to crypto assets and represent a significant development in the intersection of crypto and traditional finance. The SEC’s approval of the first exchange-traded funds that hold bitcoin was a landmark event. However, the SEC’s lukewarm sentiment emphasized the need for more regulation and investor protections. for cryptocurrency itself

Retail investors have been the primary drivers behind the demand for spot Bitcoin ETFs, with the average trade size suggesting nonprofessional investor activity. The iShares Bitcoin Trust (IBIT), issued by BlackRock, has seen significant trading volume with an average of 250,000 trades per day. However, the SEC has also urged investors to approach Bitcoin ETFs with caution due to bitcoin’s high volatility.

Broker-Dealer Registration and Compliance

Broker-dealers in the crypto space must maintain legal and regulatory compliance, including recordkeeping, reporting obligations, and whistleblower protection measures. The SEC enforces compliance with whistleblower protection measures, ensuring that broker-dealers operating with crypto-related services protect individuals who come forward with information on illegal practices.

Entities involved in lending or staking crypto assets may fall under the purview of federal securities laws, necessitating compliance with registration requirements and investor disclosures. Crypto trading platforms are under increased SEC scrutiny and are urged to register as securities exchanges, given the SEC’s wide jurisdiction covering most crypto trading activities. These requirements underscore the importance of regulatory compliance in the crypto space.

DeFi, Crypto Lending, and Decentralized Finance

The SEC faces substantial regulatory challenges with Decentralized Finance (DeFi) and crypto lending. With the total value locked in the DeFi market soaring past $101 billion, the regulatory hurdles are substantial. The SEC has acknowledged that DeFi offerings often mirror traditional financial products, meaning they fall within the SEC’s regulatory purview due to their investment nature.

The SEC’s concerns regarding DeFi focus on the lack of transparency and the risk of market manipulation, in part due to the pseudonymity of participants which can place retail investors at a disadvantage. Crypto lending and staking services are also under the SEC’s spotlight, with the SEC emphasizing the need for trading platforms to be properly registered as exchanges, broker-dealers, or clearing agencies.

SEC Crypto Enforcement Actions in DeFi

The SEC has taken enforcement actions against DeFi platforms for failing to register offerings and misleading investors. BarnBridge DAO and its founders, for example, settled with the SEC for over $1.7 million for failing to register the offer and sale of ‘SMART Yield bonds’. This enforcement action underscores the SEC’s determination to uphold securities laws in the DeFi environment.

A notable shift in the SEC’s enforcement approach has involved targeting crypto trading platforms, particularly for issues related to unregistered crypto lending and staking programs. Through settlements with DeFi platforms for failing to register offerings and misleading investors, the SEC has emphasized its commitment to protecting investors and enforcing securities laws in the DeFi space.

Regulatory Considerations for Crypto Lending Products

Crypto lending products, including retail crypto lending product and crypto asset staking, are facing increased regulatory scrutiny. The SEC has heightened its enforcement focus on trading platforms that offer crypto lending and staking programs. Enforcement actions by the SEC have targeted platforms for allegedly:

  • Operating without proper registration as exchanges

  • Operating without proper registration as broker-dealers

  • Operating without proper registration as clearing agencies.

In the crypto lending space, the SEC underscores the critical role of disclosure requirements to prevent information asymmetries that can disadvantage retail investors. This focus on disclosure requirements means that crypto lending platforms must ensure they are transparent in their operations and compliant with federal securities laws to avoid enforcement actions.

Navigating the Future of Crypto Regulation

Future crypto regulation will require a delicate balance between fostering innovation and ensuring investor protection. Incidents of market manipulation, like the hack of the SEC’s EDGAR system, spotlight the need for robust regulatory responses to protect the integrity of the crypto markets. The persistent ‘wild west’ atmosphere in the crypto industry signals a challenging environment for regulators as they strive to balance support for innovation with the need for investor protection.

The SEC’s crypto enforcement actions reflect this challenge, aiming to protect investors while adapting to the new technological landscape that cryptocurrencies represent. The SEC’s regulatory actions, such as the expansion of its Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit, show an effort to balance the innovation in the crypto market with the need for market integrity and investor protection.

Balancing Innovation and Investor Protection

Balancing the need for innovation in the crypto space with the necessity of investor protection is a key regulatory challenge. The SEC’s crypto enforcement actions reflect this challenge, aiming to protect investors while adapting to the new technological landscape that cryptocurrencies represent. The SEC’s regulatory actions, such as the expansion of its Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit, show an effort to balance the innovation in the crypto market with the need for market integrity and investor protection.

The SEC’s approach under Chair Gensler indicates that while innovation is encouraged, it must not come at the expense of compliance with existing financial regulations and investor protections. This balance is crucial for the future of crypto regulation, as the industry continues to evolve and grow at a rapid pace.

Preparing for Increased Regulatory Scrutiny

Crypto entities should brace themselves for heightened regulatory scrutiny from the SEC. The SEC’s enforcement actions against crypto firms, including those that offer crypto lending and staking services, highlight the need for strict compliance with federal securities laws. The SEC’s crypto enforcement actions emphasize the importance of transparency and the prevention of market manipulation, signaling the need for crypto firms to prepare for increased regulatory scrutiny.

To navigate this increased scrutiny, crypto firms must ensure they are fully compliant with federal securities laws when they raise capital. This includes:

  • Registering with the SEC where required

  • Maintaining appropriate recordkeeping and reporting obligations

  • Ensuring investor protection measures are in place, including investor education

By doing so, crypto firms can ensure they are prepared for the future of crypto regulation.


The surge in SEC crypto enforcement actions against digital-asset market participants in 2023 has profound implications for the future of cryptocurrency and its intersection with traditional finance. From the need for crypto firms to comply with federal securities laws to the SEC’s enforcement actions against DeFi platforms and crypto lending services, the regulatory landscape is evolving rapidly. With the SEC striving to balance support for innovation with the need for investor protection, the future of crypto regulation is set to be dynamic and complex. As the crypto industry continues to grow and evolve, the need for robust regulatory responses to protect the integrity of the markets and the interests of investors is more critical than ever.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does the SEC investigate crypto?

Yes, the SEC does investigate crypto. They have brought enforcement actions against various digital-asset market participants, indicating it as a top priority for the commission.

What happens if SEC wins against Coinbase?

If the SEC wins against Coinbase, it could result in digital tokens being treated as unlicensed securities, potentially posing an existential threat to the entire cryptocurrency industry. This would require crypto exchanges to treat digital tokens similarly to traditional stocks and bonds.

Which crypto was sued by SEC?

The SEC sued Coinbase for facilitating trading of several crypto tokens, including Solana, Cardano, and Polygon, which should have been registered as securities.

Does the SEC have enforcement powers?

Yes, the SEC has enforcement powers, including the ability to bring enforcement actions in federal court and in-house hearings. These powers allow the SEC to address a wide range of conduct that undermines oversight of the securities industry.

Why has there been a surge in SEC crypto enforcement actions against crypto firms?

There has been a surge in SEC enforcement actions against crypto firms due to the rapid growth of the industry and the associated risks, such as market manipulation, money laundering and fraud. The SEC is taking an aggressive stance to protect investors and market integrity.


Legal Disclaimer

The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. The content presented is not intended to be a substitute for professional legal, tax, or financial advice, nor should it be relied upon as such. Readers are encouraged to consult with their own attorney, CPA, and tax advisors to obtain specific guidance and advice tailored to their individual circumstances. No responsibility is assumed for any inaccuracies or errors in the information contained herein, and John Montague and Montague Law expressly disclaim any liability for any actions taken or not taken based on the information provided in this article.

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