California man operating unlicensed $13M BTC exchange faces 25 years in jail

A California man who is accused of operating a BTC exchange service without the required registration may spend 25 years behind bars. The man allegedly exchanged BTC for cash and vice versa for a commission, in some cases doing business with proclaimed criminals, authorities said.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed charges of operating an unlicensed money transmitting business and money laundering against Hugo Sergio Mejia, of San Bernardino County, before the Central District of California court. As per the DoJ’s press release, Mejia agreed to plead guilty to both felony offenses.

As per his plea agreement, Mejia operated his business between May 2018 and September 2020. He admitted that the business was not registered with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). During the two and a half years he ran the exchange, Mejia said he exchanged at least $13 million for his clients.

Mejia was fully aware he was committing a felony with his business, the DoJ stated, as evidenced by the fact that he put up three companies to mask his true activities. The three were Worldwide Secure Communications LLC, The HODL Group LLC and World Secure Data. He advertised his business online, communicating with his clients via encrypted messaging services. He would then meet them in person at coffee shops for the exchange.

His takedown began in May 2019 when he started meeting with a new client to exchange BTC worth tens of thousands of dollars. Authorities said the client was working with law enforcement to take Mejia down. On March 12, 2020, he facilitated the exchange of 14.273 BTC for $82,150 in cash plus fees.

During the meeting, the client told Mejia that the money was related to a methamphetamine operation in Australia, but Mejia continued working with the client and transacted over $250,000 in the process, according to the DoJ.

As part of his plea agreement, he will forfeit all assets he derived from the illegal conduct. This includes $233, 987 in cash the police seized from his residences. It also includes silver bars and coins as well as $95,587 in various digital currencies the police seized.

“Once he pleads guilty to the two counts in the information, Mejia will face a statutory maximum sentence of 25 years in federal prison.”

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