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SEC nearly doubles its crypto enforcement team to police fraud

Twenty new lawyers and investigators will boost SEC Chair Gary Gensler’s bid to crack down on industry abuses

Gary Gensler, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, is beefing up the SEC's crypto enforcement team. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters/Bloomberg News)

The Securities and Exchange Commission is nearly doubling the size of its team dedicated to policing cryptocurrency market abuses, the latest sign of the Wall Street regulator’s get-tough approach to the booming industry.

The agency is adding 20 staffers to its crypto enforcement unit, including investigative staff attorneys, trial lawyers and fraud analysts, it said in a statement Tuesday. The move will bring the newly renamed Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit to 50 people, beefing up its ability to police securities law violations involving new coin offerings, crypto exchanges, decentralized finance platforms, and non-fungible tokens, among other items, the agency said.

“The U.S. has the greatest capital markets because investors have faith in them, and as more investors access the crypto markets, it is increasingly important to dedicate more resources to protecting them,” SEC Chair Gary Gensler said in the statement. The expanded office will boost the agency’s ability to “police wrongdoing in the crypto markets while continuing to identify disclosure and controls issues with respect to cybersecurity,” Gensler said.

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The office has brought more than 80 enforcement actions since launching in 2017, securing more than $2 billion in penalties, according to the agency. Over the past five years, meanwhile, the industry’s total market value surged more than 40-fold, to roughly $1.7 trillion. The boom has left “retail investors bearing the brunt of abuses in this space,” Gurbir Grewal, director of the agency’s enforcement division, said in a statement.

Many crypto leaders have turned sharply critical of Gensler’s approach to the industry since he took office a year ago. They say instead of developing clear rules for digital assets, he has pursued a policy of regulation by enforcement, defining wrongdoing after the fact and then seeking to punish it. Gensler addressed that critique in a November speech, saying, “I just call it ‘enforcement.’ ”

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Top crypto companies have responded by pushing Congress to give more oversight of the industry to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which they view as friendlier than Gensler’s SEC.

Gensler has not backed down. He announced plans last month to expand the SEC’s reach into crypto markets, including by starting to register and regulate crypto trading platforms. In a speech describing the plans, he said the agency is seeking to partner with the CFTC to jointly oversee platforms offering both crypto-based securities and commodities, although policymakers are still debating how to classify digital assets.

The agency’s move to add muscle to its crypto enforcement division drew a rebuke Tuesday from one of its Republican commissioners. Hester Peirce, who has advocated a light-touch approach to crypto, responded to the news on Twitter, writing: “The SEC is a regulatory agency with an enforcement division, not an enforcement agency. Why are we leading with enforcement in crypto?”