LOS ANGELES – An Orange County man has agreed to plead guilty to federal criminal charges that he operated an illegal virtual-currency money services business that exchanged up to $25 million – including on behalf of criminals – through in-person transactions and a network of Bitcoin ATM-type kiosks.
Kais Mohammad, 36, a.k.a. “Superman29,”, of Yorba Linda, was charged in a three-count criminal information filed today in U.S. District Court. In a plea agreement also filed today, Mohammad agreed to plead guilty to one count of operating an unlicensed money transmitting business, one count of money laundering, and one count of failure to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program.
This case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Los Angeles, IRS Criminal Investigation and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The investigation was conducted with the support of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF).
According to his plea agreement, from December 2014 to November 2019, Mohammad owned and operated Herocoin, an illegal virtual-currency money services business. As part of his business, he offered Bitcoin-cash exchange services, charging commissions of up to 25 percent – significantly above the prevailing market rate – for doing so.
Using the moniker “Superman29,” Mohammad advertised his business online to buy and sell Bitcoin throughout Southern California, in transactions up to $25,000. In a typical transaction, he met clients at a public location and exchanged currency for them. Mohammad generally did not inquire as to the source of the clients’ funds and on many occasions, he knew the funds were the proceeds of criminal activity. Mohammad admitted that he knew at least one Herocoin client who was engaged in illegal activity on the dark web.
Mohammad later purchased and advertised on the internet a network of Bitcoin ATM-type kiosks, which were located in malls, gas stations and convenience stores in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. These kiosks allowed customers to use cash to buy Bitcoin, an Internet-based cryptocurrency, or sell Bitcoin in exchange for cash that is dispensed onsite.
Mohammad processed cryptocurrency deposited into the machines, supplied the machines with cash that customers would withdraw, and maintained the server software that operated the machines. He was able to monitor transactions on the machines and identify each transaction that occurred on them.
During the time of Herocoin’s operation, Mohammad, a former bank employee, intentionally failed to register his company with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Mohammad admitted he was aware that he was required to – but chose not to – develop and maintain an effective anti-money laundering program, file currency transaction reports for exchanges of currency in excess of $10,000, conduct due diligence on customers, and file suspicious activity reports for transactions over $2,000 involving customers he had reason to suspect were involved in criminal activity. With respect to his Bitcoin ATM network, Mohammad further admitted that he did not have a program in place that would have allowed him to obtain identifications for customers conducting multiple transactions of up to $3,000 or verify that any identification provided was the person conducting the transaction.
After FinCEN contacted Mohammad in July 2018 about his need to register his company, Mohammad did so, but he continued to fail to comply fully with federal law concerning money laundering, conducting due diligence and reporting suspicious customers.
During the course of its investigation, law enforcement conducted multiple transactions with Mohammad, including three successive purchases of Bitcoin totaling $14,500 by the same undercover agent from an ATM kiosk in Lakewood on September 12, 2018, for which Mohammad did not file a currency transaction report as required.
From February 2019 to August 2019, Mohammad also conducted multiple in-person transactions with undercover agents who represented they worked at a “karaoke bar” that employed women from Korea who entertained men in various ways, including engaging in sexual activity, according to the plea agreement. On August 28, 2019, he met with an agent and exchanged $16,000 in cash, which the agent represented were the proceeds from illegal activity, for 1.58592 Bitcoin. Mohammad never filed a currency transaction report or suspicious activity report for these transactions.
In total, Mohammad admitted that he exchanged between $15 million and $25 million from in-person exchanges and transactions occurring at his Bitcoin kiosks.
Mohammad is expected to plead guilty to the charges at a hearing in the coming weeks. Upon pleading guilty, he will face a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison. As part of the plea agreement, Mohammad has agreed to forfeit cash, cryptocurrency, and 17 Bitcoin ATMs that he operated as part of his business.