US Justice Department Investigating Cryptocurrency Price Manipulation

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The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) reportedly has opened a criminal investigation into illegal manipulation of bitcoin prices. According to a report at Bloomberg News citing unnamed sources, investigators will be searching for evidence of illegal practices that place false orders in an effort to create the appearance of market activity.

The Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the federal agency charged with oversight of the futures and options market, is reportedly joining the DoJ in the investigation. Other federal agencies also may be involved.

This past March, an investor named Sylvain Ribes posted a story in which he claimed his own investigation of a cryptocurrency exchange called OKex indicated that about 93% of trading volume was the result of wash trading, a type of illegal trade where sellers buy their own offerings as a way to show that demand for the goods is higher than it really is.

The CFTC in December subpoenaed records from another cryptocurrency exchange, Bitfinex, and a digital currency firm Tether that pegs the value of its digital currency to the U.S. dollar.

In addition to wash trading, the DoJ investigation is also said to be targeting spoofing, another method of faking trades to make trading volume look much higher than it actually is. The object of spoofing and wash trading is to create an image of demand that will lead other unsuspecting traders to jump in as well.

The CFTC in 2015 declared virtual currencies to be a commodity and claims investigatory power, including the authority to subpoena exchange operators. Commissioner Brian Quintenz said earlier this year that the CFTC will focus its attention on fraud, market manipulation and disruptive trading in the cryptocurrency markets. It looks like that’s what’s now happening.