Australian regulator sues comparison site over crypto product

SYDNEY, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Australia's corporate regulator sued the country's biggest comparison website on Thursday in relation to a cryptocurrency product, accusing it of conducting unlicensed financial services and breaching consumer protection laws.

The lawsuit is the third by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) against a supplier of crypto-related products in the past two months as it tries to rein in the still largely unregulated sector.

Finder Wallet, a unit of price comparison website, effectively sold a debenture product without a financial services licence by inviting people to deposit money in an account, converting it to a "stablecoin" and paying guaranteed returns, ASIC said in a federal court filing.

The civil lawsuit requested a court declaration that the company broke laws requiring it to hold a financial services licence, disclose investment risks, and make a formal declaration about the product's intended market, as well as unspecified fines.

ASIC Chairman Joe Longo said in parliament this month that the regulator wants to test in court whether crypto assets count as financial products under the law.

"Just because an offer involves a crypto-asset related product does not guarantee it will fall outside the current regulatory regime," ASIC Deputy Chair Sarah Court said in a statement published with the lawsuit.

ASIC's court filing said people who used's product "made uninformed (or inadequately informed) investments, exposing them to a risk of loss ... given that they did not have the benefit of the regulatory regime".

As of September, Finder Wallet owed A$20.8 million ($14.2 million) to consumers in the absence of legal protections, the cour filing added.

A spokesperson told Reuters the company did "not share ASIC's view that Finder Earn can be regarded as a debenture" and said all customer money was returned when the product was closed in November.

The spokesperson did not say if would defend the lawsuit.

($1 = 1.4646 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Stephen Coates

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.