Anti-Money Laundering (AML)

On Monday, the state of Florida moved a step closer towards amending its money laundering statute to include the nefarious use of bitcoin and other virtual currencies. The bill, H.B. 1379, has sailed through a committee vote and will now be presented to the floor. If the bill passes, it will serve, in pertinent part, to define bitcoin and “virtual currency” (“VC”) as “monetary instruments” within the meaning of the state’s money laundering statute; in the same vein, bitcoin will be defined as a “medium of exchange in electronic or digital format that is not a coin or currency of the United States or any other country.” Continue Reading Florida Lawmakers Seek to Bring Virtual Currency into the Fold

This week, we have the opportunity to lead a discussion with real estate industry professionals about AML and CFT trends at the Real Estate Services Providers Council, Inc. (RESPRO®) Annual Conference in Las Vegas. We have written several times in this blog about the real estate industry, including the 2017 extension of the GTOs for title insurance companies, other recent FinCEN activities, and the FATF’s conclusions regarding real estate in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report.

We are very pleased that Anne Marie Minogue of Navigant will be joining us on the panel. The real estate industry operates differently in different states and efforts to enhance AML and CFT supervision and enforcement will need to reflect this complexity. RESPRO members include a broad range of industry participants that will be affected by further actions by FinCEN so we are looking forward to the discussion.Beautiful Swimming Pool at an Estate Home

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on April 3 to decide whether Jordan-based Arab Bank may be liable for claims including allegations that its New YorkDetail view of the United States Supreme Court branch processed transactions for known terrorists. While the central issue before the Court will be the scope of the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) – namely whether it permits corporate liability for violations of international law – Jesner v. Arab Bank also illustrates how alleged AML/BSA failures can lead to yet another avenue for secondary legal liability for financial institutions, as we previously have noted in other contexts. Depending on the outcome of the Court’s opinion in Jesner, such U.S. exposures may extend to foreign financial institutions even when the alleged conduct occurs primarily abroad. Continue Reading Weighing Corporate Liability under the Alien Tort Statute: What it Means for AML/CFT Controls

FDICIn his remarks during last week’s launch of Case Western Reserve School of Law’s Financial Integrity Institute, FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg spoke on the historical context of today’s BSA/AML regulatory framework and the FDIC’s role in promoting and maintaining financial integrity.  The Financial Integrity Institute describes its mission as seeking “to advance financial integrity globally by conducting and promoting at the highest standards research, education and professional excellence in anti-money laundering, anti-corruption, targeted sanctions and countering the financing of terrorism and international tax evasion policies and practices.”

Chairman Gruenberg recounted the legislative history of money laundering and terrorist financing laws and reminded us that the BSA was originally developed to address the lack of data needed by law enforcement to prosecute financial crimes. The regulatory framework has evolved over time in response to continual technological advancements and the increasing volume and sophistication of financial crime being perpetrated. “[W]hat began as currency transaction reporting requirements to identify citizens evading tax payments,” he said, “has evolved into required BSA/AML compliance programs, suspicious activity monitoring, and new reporting requirements to identify money laundering and terrorist financing, among other financial crimes.” The Chairman also observed that anti-money laundering efforts continue to take on an increasingly international aspect, and that evolving technologies constitute a “double-edged sword” because they can represent new means to either commit, or detect and prevent, financial crime.

In his speech, the Chairman also touched on the FDIC’s supervisory program. He stated that the FDIC evaluates not only an institution’s compliance with the BSA but also whether an institution has established a “culture of compliance.” He further remarked that the BSA/AML compliance program failures seen by the FDIC “often reflect a failure on the part of an institution’s directors or senior management to establish a tone of compliance that permeates the institution.”

We previously have blogged about the regulatory focus on the importance of cultivating a culture of robust BSA/AML compliance within financial institutions. Chairman Gruenberg’s remarks suggest that this focus is not likely to diminish in the near future. As such, it is prudent for financial institutions to keep efforts to develop a culture of compliance top of mind. In particular, the Chairman noted that the FDIC looks for whether directors demonstrate strong corporate governance and have a general understanding of the BSA/AML regulations and the risks posed to their institution, and whether senior management and employees understand the importance of BSA/AML compliance.

Banks stand to advance the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery by reporting suspicious transactions and other financial activity that raise red flags, according to a report on March 15, 2017. Published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a renowned British think tank, the report notes that banks and other financial service providers are increasingly applying their transaction monitoring and data analyses to hold those who exploit people for sex and labor accountable.

Today, nearly 46 million people are living as slaves or indentured servants, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation. As the trafficking of people is heavily dependent upon the movement of money, the misuse of banks and intermediaries are a key component of keeping the industry afloat. In particular, these institutions not only process payments and serve as the final stop for illicit proceeds, but also act as a conduit for financing the trafficking supply chain itself. For example, money services businesses are exploited to pay transporters, prepaid cards are used to move funds across borders, and individual bank accounts are opened to funnel profits.

Some financial institutions, aware of their misuse, are teaming with regulators and law enforcement alike to seek out ways to stem the tide. In fact, some institutions have looked beyond their standard controls to implement techniques specifically tailored to detect human trafficking. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Project STAMP – created to promote the enforcement of the BSA and the money laundering statutes – aims to shut down human trafficking organizations by identifying and seizing assets and proceeds derived or used in support thereof. Similarly, FinCEN has published guidance to financial institutions that, inter alia, describes a number of unique red flags, such as atypical remittance patterns and frequent payments to online escort services for “advertising.”

As RUSI’s report makes clear, preexisting AML/CFT controls present a potentially highly effective means of identifying and providing evidence to hold accountable those who provide and solicit human trafficking.  Given the industry’s heavy dependence on financial institutions, together with these institutions’ preexisting AML/CFT programs and vast amounts of financial data on hand, banks and intermediaries alike are in a unique position to make a meaningful impact.

 

Neon sign depicting money transfer.

On January 19, 2017, the Western Union Company (“Western Union” or the “Company”) entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) with the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), in which Western Union admitted to willful failures to maintain an effective AML program as well as aiding and abetting of wire fraud schemes.  Western Union agreed to a $586 million monetary penalty which will resolve criminal and civil allegations brought by the DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission against the Company, as well as a related Assessment of Civil Money Penalty by FinCEN against a subsidiary of Western Union.  However, Western Union now faces additional costs and litigation for its admittedly insufficient AML program in the form of shareholder suits brought in federal court following the announcement of this sizeable settlement.  Shareholder derivative suits based on alleged AML failures are becoming increasingly common, and this recent action fits squarely into the apparent trend. Continue Reading Investor Suits Follow in the Wake of Western Union Settlement of Money Laundering and Fraud Claims

 

"Group of pedestrians walking on a cobbled street, sharing the frame with their bag-carrying shadows"

Earlier this week, we blogged about how the United States recently declared the Philippines to be a “major money laundering country.”  On the same day of our post, March 7, the European Parliament (EP) issued a Report which describes the United States as a growing haven for tax evasion and money laundering.  Specifically, the Report concludes that the United States “is seen as an emerging leading tax and secrecy haven for rich foreigners. By resisting new global disclosure standards, it provides an array of secrecy and tax-free facilities for non-residents at federal and state levels, notably in Nevada, Delaware, Wyoming, and South Dakota.” Continue Reading European Parliament: The U.S. is a Haven for Tax Cheats and Money Launderers

The Philippines has been identified by the U.S. as a “major money-laundering country” in the 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (“Report”), published this month. The country now joins 87 others as one “whose financial institutions engage in currency transactions involving significant amounts of proceeds from international narcotics trafficking.” See 22 U.S.C. § 2291(e)(7).

By way of background, the Report is a legislatively mandated, annual assessment of the efforts of foreign governments to reduce illicit narcotics production, trafficking and use, as well as their efforts to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. Each year, U.S. officials from agencies with AML responsibilities assess the pervasiveness of money laundering in these countries, which includes steps taken (or not taken) to address financial crime and money laundering, and measures to strengthen law enforcement and prosecutorial capabilities.

In regard to the Philippines, the Report concludes that “[m]oney laundering is a serious concern due to [the] international narcotics trade, high degree of corruption among government officials, trafficking in persons, and the high volume of remittances from Filipinos living abroad … [c]riminal groups use the Philippine banking system, commercial enterprises, and particularly casinos, to transfer drug and other illicit proceeds from the Philippines to offshore accounts.”

As support for the heightened designation, the Report cites to the Philippines’ “significant gaps” in its efforts to combat money laundering. For one, the country’s bank secrecy provisions “are among the World’s strictest.” In most cases, Filipino investigators must first obtain a court order to access bank records; such an order is dependent upon a sufficient showing of an ongoing “predicate crime” and neither cybercrime nor tax evasion is classified as such. Despite the country’s effort to centralize AML efforts via the Anti-Money Laundering Council (“AMCL”), since its founding in 2001, cooperation among law enforcement agencies remains “insufficient” and to date, only 49 money laundering cases have been filed. Indeed, Reuters reports that the number of prosecutions and convictions stemming from the 49 has been “virtually nil.”

The Report’s conclusions are an unwelcome development for the Philippines. Though any outcome remains to be seen, their label as a major money-laundering hub may serve as a catalyst for offshore firms to “de-risk” by cutting its ties with local banks and intermediaries.

FinCEN announced today that it is renewing the existing Geographical Targeting Orders (GTOs) issued in July 2016 that require all title insurance companies to identify and report on the natural persons behind shell companies that make cash-only purchases of high-end real estate in six major metropolitan markets. The renewed GTOs will be in effect from February 24, 2017 through August 22, 2017.

The initial real estate GTOs were issued to certain title insurance companies (including their subsidiaries and agents) in January 2016 for purchases in the Borough of Manhattan and Miami-Dade County. The July 2016 orders being renewed today expanded the scope of the GTOs to cover all title insurance companies and to include numerous counties in six major metropolitan areas.

The renewal of the GTOs was anticipated. In today’s new release, FinCEN noted that it “has found that about 30 percent of the transactions covered by the GTOs involve a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that is also the subject of a previous suspicious activity report.”

As highlighted in our 2016 Year in Review, FinCEN has increased its focus on AML risks in real estate. We expect FinCEN to further expand their supervisory and enforcement activity in the real estate market, as recommended by the FATF in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report.

The Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) has continued its efforts to promote improvements in Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering compliance with the release in January 2017 of a new BSA/AML Self-Assessment Tool for banks. The optional tool is intended to help state-chartered banks enhance their risk assessment process.

The tool, which is provided in Microsoft Excel format, includes a standard methodology for a risk and control self-assessment (RCSA): determination of inherent risks, assessment of the strength of “risk mitigation/controls” and a residual risk rating. The tool is helpful as far as it goes, which is providing a general methodology and identifying common inherent risk areas for banks. The tool does not provide guidance on what constitutes “low,” “moderate” or “high” inherent risks for each category, nor does it provide a list of expected controls or guidance regarding how to rate the strength of controls. The identification and rating of controls is the more challenging part of conducting an RCSA.

State-chartered banks should consider how they might be able to leverage this tool to enhance their current risk assessment process. Given the critical role of risk assessments in building a robust and sustainable BSA/AML compliance program, this tool can help some banks and other companies supervised by state regulators raise the level of their risk assessment. Banks and others will still have to do so some hard thinking as they build out a meaningful RCSA, but the framework provided by the CSBS should prove helpful to many institutions.