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Companies and individuals are increasingly considering initial coin offerings (ICOs) as a way to raise capital or participate in investment opportunities. While these digital assets and the technology behind them may present a new and efficient means for carrying out financial transactions, they also bring increased risk of fraud and manipulation because the markets for these assets are less regulated than traditional capital markets.

SEC FinHub staff will host a public forum focusing on distributed ledger technology (DLT) and digital assets on May 31, 2019. The forum will be open to the public and webcast live via the SEC’s website. More information on the agenda and participants will be published in the coming weeks.

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  • [+]ICOs can be securities offerings.

    ICOs, based on specific facts, may be securities offerings, and fall under the SEC’s jurisdiction of enforcing federal securities laws.

  • [+]They may need to be registered.

    ICOs that are securities most likely need to be registered with the SEC or fall under an exemption to registration.

  • [+]Tokens sold in ICOs can be called many things.

    ICOs, or more specifically tokens, can be called a variety of names, but merely calling a token a “utility” token or structuring it to provide some utility does not prevent the token from being a security.

  • [+]ICOs may pose substantial risks.

    While some ICOs may be attempts at honest investment opportunities, many may be frauds, separating you from your hard-earned money with promises of guaranteed returns and future fortunes. They may also present substantial risks for loss or manipulation, including through hacking, with little recourse for victims after-the-fact.

  • [+]Ask questions before investing.

    If you choose to invest in these products, please ask questions and demand clear answers.

What investors need to know

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So, what do you need to know about ICOs before investing? Start with some basic research on and take note of the following:

  • [+]Products can be sold and traded internationally.

    Recognize that these products are often sold on markets that span national borders and that significant trading may occur on systems and platforms outside the United States. Your invested funds may quickly travel overseas without your knowledge. Although the SEC actively enforces securities laws, risks can be amplified, including the risk that market regulators may not be able to effectively pursue bad actors or recover funds.

  • [+]Research your financial professional.

    Understand the opportunity that is being presented, and do your homework on the individual who is doing the presenting. Is the offering legal and is the person offering this product licensed to do so? Make sure you visit for more resources before you invest. Arm yourself with knowledge from this Investor Bulletin.

  • [+]If an investment sounds too good to be true, be cautious.

    As with any other type of potential investment, if a promoter guarantees returns, if an opportunity sounds too good to be true, or if you are pressured to act quickly, please exercise extreme caution and be aware of the risk that your investment may be lost.

  • [+]Understand how the product is traded.

    Many platforms for trading digital assets refer to themselves as "exchanges," which can give the misimpression to investors that they are regulated or meet the regulatory standards of a national securities exchange.

What market professionals need to know

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As SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has stated, tokens and offerings that feature and market the potential for profits based on the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others contain the hallmarks of a security under U.S. law.

  • [+]Use caution before promoting offers and selling coins.

    Market participants should use caution when promoting or touting the offer and sale of coins without first determining whether the securities laws apply to those actions. Similarly, those who operate systems and platforms that effect or facilitate transactions in these products should be aware that they may be operating unregistered exchanges or broker-dealers that are in violation of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

  • [+]The SEC protects Investors, and expects you to.

    Gatekeepers and others, including securities lawyers, accountants and consultants, should be guided by the principal motivation for the SEC’s registration, offering process and disclosure requirements: Investor protection and, in particular, the protection of Main Street investors.

  • [+]SEC Report of Investigation on Coin or Token Offerings.

    Market professionals, including securities lawyers, accountants and consultants, are encouraged to read closely the 21(a) investigative report the SEC released in 2017, concluding that a particular token was a security.

  • [+]Know when an exchange needs to be registered.

    If a platform offers trading of digital assets that are securities and operates as an "exchange," as defined by the federal securities laws, then the platform must register with the SEC as a national securities exchange or be exempt from registration.


The SEC is actively protecting investors from unregistered or fraudulent ICOs, see examples of enforcement actions and trading suspensions here.