The New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) recently issued proposed regulations for businesses that deal with "virtual currencies," defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a medium of exchange that operates much like traditional currency, but only in some environments. Virtual currencies are gaining in prominence as an alternative to fiat currencies like the dollar and the euro, although they have been highly controversial. New York appears to be one of the first states to take serious steps towards regulating businesses that perform virtual currency transactions for customers.
Bitcoin is probably the most famous virtual currency, but it is far from the only one. The currency only exists in the online world, having no physical representation like actual coins or bills. The process by which new Bitcoins are created, known as "mining," involves performing increasingly complex computer calculations. Bitcoin has grown as a form of payment for goods and services online, but it is also the subject of scrutiny based on allegations that it is used for illegal online purchases, such as drugs and identity theft information.
Bitcoin is treated somewhat like a commodity by some people, as suggested by the fact that the value of one Bitcoin is typically expressed in terms of U.S. dollars. Online exchanges allow people to exchange various other currencies for Bitcoins. As of mid-November 2014, one Bitcoin is worth about $400. One presumably happy Norwegian man discovered in late 2013 that the $27 worth of Bitcoins he purchased in 2009 had appreciated in value to about $886,000.