New UAE cybercrime law: Dh1 million fine, 5-year jail for cryptocurrency scams

The new Online Security Law takes effect from January 2, 2022

by Dhanusha Gokulan

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Published: Thu 30 Dec 2021, 9:52 AM

Last updated: Thu 30 Dec 2021, 10:01 AM

Cybercriminals who run cryptocurrency scams in the UAE could face detention of up to five years and or a fine of between Dh250,000 and Dh1 million, top legal experts have said.

In November, the new legislations were introduced as part of the several legal reforms introduced by the UAE President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Penalties for promoting unrecognised cryptocurrencies

“Under Article 48 of the Online Security Law, any person who promotes, advertises or encourages dealing in cryptocurrency, that is not officially recognised in the UAE, or does so without being licensed, is subject to a penalty of detention and, or a fine between Dh20,000 and Dh500,000,” explained Josh Kemp, partner at ADG Legal.

Aside from any fraudulent scheme being an offence under the Penal Code, running a crypto scam online would expose persons to prosecution under the new law.

This would take place most likely either under Article 40 for using online means to fraudulently obtain a benefit, or otherwise under Article 41 by running an online scheme by creating or managing a false portfolio or company to receive or collect funds from the public for investment, management, utilisation or development.

“Article 40 carries a penalty of detention of not less than one year and/or a fine of between Dh 250,000 to Dh 1 million, while Article 41 carries a penalty of detention for up to five years and/or a fine of between Dh 250,000 and Dh 1 million,” said Kostubh Devnani, dispute resolution lawyer at ADG Legal.


Combating cryptocurrency scams in UAE

The legal team at ADG confirmed that the UAE had seen a rise in these scams, similar to most countries.

“Perhaps the most publicised and recent example is the DubaiCoin scam which claimed to launch as Dubai’s official cryptocurrency,” said Kemp.

“It was later discovered that fraudsters had set up the DubaiCoin website to phish data and money from crypto investors. When potential investors filled out a form on the website, an agent would contact them and offer to exchange their currency for DubaiCoin,” he added.

In May 2021, the Dubai Government released an official statement dismissing all claims about DubaiCoin being the official cryptocurrency of Dubai. However, it is believed that many had fallen prey to the fraud because of the cryptocurrency’s convincing name.

“The positive news is that apart from the new laws, and UAE stepping up efforts to combat financial crime, courts in other (particularly common law) jurisdictions have been willing to grant remedies normally applicable to physical or tangible property to victims of crypto scams, such as freezing orders and orders for production of information,” said Devnani.

The UAE courts will inevitably adapt in the same way, perhaps most imminently in the DIFC and ADGM courts.

Vijay Valecha, Chief Investment Officer at Century Financial said that, globally, over $7.7 billion was stolen in cryptocurrency scams worldwide in 2021, an 81 per cent rise compared to 2020. “There have been a few hundred cases of crypto scams where people in Dubai have lost close to Dh 80 million in 2021,” he stated.


Are any cryptocurrencies banned in UAE?

Central banks worldwide are reluctant to endorse cryptocurrencies because of a lack of underlying value and regulatory oversight.

“Even the Central Bank of the UAE does not recognize cryptocurrencies as a legal tender. However, they can be traded on various crypto exchange platforms available as there is no prohibition against crypto assets in the UAE,” said Valecha.

Divya Abrol Gambhir, partner, banking at Al Tamimi and Company, said the new reforms do not make a distinction on accepted and banned cryptocurrencies but rather the focus is on activities that may, or may not, be conducted within the regulations.

Meanwhile, Kemp said there are no direct bans on specific cryptocurrencies. “Rather, the new laws require persons engaging in crypto-related activities such as offering, issuing, promoting, listing and trading of cryptocurrencies, to be licensed by the Securities and Commodities Authority (SCA), and to obtain approval of offering documentation and other aspects of their operations.

New policies were introduced to regulate cryptocurrencies in the UAE

  • The most significant regulation recently introduced in the UAE is Decision No. 23 of 2020 of the Securities and Commodities Authority (SCA) concerning Crypto Assets Activities Regulation which came into effect on November 1, 2020.
  • The Regulation governs virtually all dealings relating to Crypto Assets including offering, issuing, promoting, listing and operating exchanges for the trading of Crypto Assets (including cryptocurrencies), and related activities.
  • All of these activities will require persons to be authorised by the SCA and will, it seems, be subject to the same rules applicable to traditional securities.
  • The Regulation also reiterates and expands on existing regulations on money-laundering and terrorism financing, for example by requiring that all licensed persons treat clients transacting in Crypto Assets as ‘high risk’ for the purposes of client due diligence.
  • The Dubai World Trade Centre Authority and Binance, signed a preliminary agreement to develop an industry hub for global virtual assets in the emirate, aimed at accelerating their adoption in 2022 within the GCC region

Overview of the most recent updates to Online Security Law

The new Online Security Law takes effect on January 2, 2022, and is one of the first comprehensive legal frameworks in the region to address the risks associated with the use of online technologies, including the illegal use of cryptocurrencies.

The new law replaces the previous 2012 law ‘Concerning Anti-Cybercrimes’ and aims to enhance the protection of the public, private businesses and government from cybercrimes.

“Broadly, the new law provides for a wider range of hacking crimes, as well as content-related crimes directed at the use of technology for illicit purposes such as terrorism, disseminating false information or fake news, and other uses that are contrary to public morals,” explained Josh Kemp, partner at ADG Legal.

Dhanusha Gokulan
Dhanusha Gokulan

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