First Post in a Two-Part Series

How do financial institutions get in trouble with their regulators? Recent AML enforcement actions suggest that the following two failures are at the heart of most of these actions: (1) inadequately identifying, monitoring and/or reporting suspicious activity; and (2) failing to implement adequate internal controls. And these same issues crop up year after year.

In this post, we’ll discuss these failures and their root causes and provide practical tips for ensuring that your AML program will withstand the scrutiny of regulators. In our next post, we will discuss how these practical tips apply in a specific AML enforcement action: the recent consent order between the New York Department of Financial Services and Mashreqbank.  Further, we look forward to discussing all of these issues in an upcoming podcast in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Monitor Podcast series.  So please stay tuned.

The U.S. financial institutions that recently found themselves in the government’s crosshairs allegedly engaged in the following behavior:

  • Failing to investigate alerts on high-risk accounts where those accounts had been investigated previously, even when the new suspicious activity to which the bank had been alerted differed from the activity that it previously had investigated.
  • Having a policy of not investigating or filing SARs on cash withdrawals from branches near the Mexican border if the customer said they were withdrawing cash in the U.S., rather than carrying cash into the U.S. from Mexico, in order to avoid having to file a Report of International Transportation of Currency or Monetary Instruments (CMIR).
  • Capping the number of alerts from its transaction monitoring systems based on the number of staff available to review the alerts rather than on the risks posed by the transactions (and lying to regulators about it).
  • Failing to report the suspicious activities of a longtime customer despite having been warned that the customer was laundering the proceeds of an illegal and fraudulent scheme through accounts at the bank.
  • Failing to conduct necessary due diligence on foreign correspondent accounts.
  • A brokerage company failing to file SARs on transactions that showed signs of market manipulation.
  • A MSB’s failing to implement proper controls and discipline crooked agents because those agents were so profitable for the MSB, thereby enabling illegal schemes such as money laundering.

Although the behavior of these financial institutions may differ, the root causes of their failures do not. They include the following:

  • An inadequate, ineffective or non-existent risk assessment.
  • Elevating the business line over the compliance function.
  • Offering products or using new technologies without adequate controls in place.
  • Compliance programs that are not commensurate with the risks, often due to under investment in AML technology or other resources and/or lack of awareness of AML risks or controls.
  • Corporate silos, both human and technological, that prevent or hinder information sharing.
  • Insufficient screening of parties and relationships and lack of effective processes and controls around EDD.

So how can you ensure that your AML program is adequate? Here are some practical tips. Continue Reading Practical Tips for Ensuring Your AML Program Withstands the Scrutiny of Regulators

In the wake of this week’s revelations of years-long and significant alleged money laundering failures involving ING Bank and Danske Bank, European regulators have circulated a confidential “reflection paper” warning national governments and the European Parliament about shortcomings in the European Union’s (“EU”) anti-money laundering (“AML”) efforts and providing recommendations to strengthen these efforts.  The reflection paper recommends centralizing the enforcement of AML rules through a powerful new EU authority to ensure that banks implement background checks and other AML measures, and setting a deadline for the European Central Bank to reach agreement with national authorities to allow for the sharing of sensitive data.

Continue Reading Recent Nordic Scandals Involving ING Bank and Danske Bank Underscore the European Union’s Vulnerabilities to Money Laundering

Address Emphasizes Role of SARs in Fighting Illegal Activity, Including Drug Dealing Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Kenneth Blanco, the Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), discussed last week several issues involving virtual currency during an address before the “2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference” at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. Although some of his comments retread familiar ground, Blanco did offer some new insights, including the fact that FinCEN now receives over 1,500 Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) a month relating to virtual currency. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Addresses Virtual Currency and Touts Regulatory Leadership and Value of SAR Filings

Second Post in a Two-Part Series

As we blogged earlier this week, Congress is considering a new draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), in committee in the Senate.  The CTIFA proposes the most substantial overhaul to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) since the PATRIOT Act.

We previously discussed CTIFA’s proposed requirement for legal entities to submit to FinCEN a list their beneficial owners (“BOs”) and the creation of a central directory of these BOs. Today, we discuss CTIFA’s many other major proposed revisions to the BSA. These include:

  • Raising the minimum monetary thresholds for filing Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”) and Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”), and requiring a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined;
  • Expanding the prohibition against disclosing SAR-related information to third parties, including in private litigation;
  • Codifying absolute civil immunity for SAR filing;
  • Expanding the scope of voluntary information sharing among financial institutions;
  • Allowing FinCEN to issue no-action letters; and
  • A grab-bag of other proposals, including a safe harbor for AML-related technological innovation; requiring a review of whether FinCEN should assume a greater role in AML/BSA examinations of financial institutions; requiring a review of the costs to the private sector for AML/BSA compliance; and requiring an annual report to the Secretary of the Treasury (“the Secretary”) regarding the usefulness of BSA reporting to law enforcement.

Continue Reading Congress Contemplates Broad AML/BSA Reform

Mexico City’s downtown and Palacio de Bellas Artes building at twilight

Last week, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) issued a report concluding that Mexico needs to “step up efforts in pursuing money launderers.” The report, which summarized the FATF’s findings from its on-site assessment in early 2017, identified three particularly weak areas in Mexico’s AML regime:  preventative measures; investigation and prosecution; and confiscation.  This post summarizes the report’s findings, and observes that Mexico is not the only nation needing to “step up” its efforts.  Further, given the strong financial and geographic ties between Mexico and the U.S., the AML challenges of Mexico can be the challenges of the U.S. Continue Reading Mexico’s AML Regime Evaluated by the FATF: Systemic Improvement, but Suspicious Transaction Reporting and Law Enforcement Efforts Continue to Struggle

FinCEN recently announced the launching of the “FinCEN Exchange” to enhance information sharing with financial institutions.  We previously have blogged about the potential benefits of a public-private partnership between law enforcement and financial institutions for both parties as a way to enhance law enforcement’s efforts to disrupt and intercept money laundering and terrorist financing as well as a financial institution’s ability to identify and accurately report suspicious activity. Information sharing has become a key issue in global conversations about reform of Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) regimes.

The FinCEN Exchange represents a direct response to financial industry requests for more guidance and information from government to help identify and report suspicious activity. Although it is a positive step towards improving the system for reporting suspicious activity, the FinCEN Exchange presumably will create expectations by the government that problems identified by the Exchange will be captured by suspicious activity reporting going forward.  Hopefully, the converse also will occur, and expectations regarding the reporting of activity identified as low priority will be lowered, so that industry truly may focus its current resources and not be compelled to expend even more resources on AML compliance. Continue Reading Information Sharing Exchange Launched by FinCEN to Improve Suspicious Activity Reporting

PANA Issues Recommendations to European Parliament: Tougher Enforcement, Greater Transparency, Improved Information Sharing and Prohibitions Against Outsourcing of Customer Due Diligence

In the wake of the Panama Papers, the European Parliament (“EP”) formed PANA, a Committee of Inquiry into Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance, and Tax Evasion. We previously wrote about PANA in May when it was examining the role of lawyers in money laundering and tax evasion schemes. After opening their October 19 meeting with a moment of silence to honor the life of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Coruana Galizia, who recently was killed by a car bomb, PANA approved a draft report and recommendations for review by the EP. The findings and recommendations range from reporting standardization to outsourcing to illicit real estate transactions to attorney-client privilege.

European parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

A few themes emerged from the PANA report:

  • the European Union (“EU”) has strong law, but lacks vigorous enforcement;
  • the EU’s many regulators are stymied by a severe lack of communication, both within nations and between countries;
  • beneficial owners (“BOs”) are mostly unknown because regulated entities are not fulfilling their reporting obligations and the BO register is not robust, accessible, or standardized;
  • intermediaries, like banks, lawyers, accountants, wealth managers, and other financial institutions, are not living up to their obligations because they are engaging in “creative compliance” and leaving compliance responsibility to third parties.

Based on these findings, PANA recommends:

  • uniform definitions and punishments for money laundering and tax-related infractions,
  • “automatic exchange of information,” reciprocity, and “Common Reporting Standards” between regulators to facilitate better information sharing,
  • the creation of a “publically accessible,” standardized BO register that includes the ultimate beneficial owner (“UBO”),
  • the EP pass legislation to “make it illegal to outsource [customer due diligence (“CDD”)] procedures to third parties,”
  • adoption of stronger forfeiture laws that allow cross-border confiscation of illegally obtained assets,
  • stronger sanctions against banks and other intermediaries that “are knowingly, willfully, and systematically implicated in illegal tax schemes,”
  • lawyers should no longer be able to hide behind the attorney-client privilege to escape reporting requirements, like suspicious transaction reports (“STRs”),
  • countries devote more resources to fighting money laundering and tax evasion,
  • the EP vest more oversight powers in PANA.

Continue Reading Money Laundering Watchdog Criticizes Lax AML Enforcement and “Creative Compliance” in Wake of Panama Papers

Third in a Three-Part Series of Blog Posts

Many Keys to AML Information Sharing This blog focuses on suggested improvements to information sharing between financial institutions, and between financial institutions and governments, to better combat money laundering and terrorist financing. As we recently blogged, the Royal United Services Institute (“RUSI”) for Defence and Security Studies — a U.K. think tank – has released a study:  The Role of Financial Information-Sharing Partnerships in the Disruption of Crime (the “Study”).  The Study focuses on international efforts — including efforts by the United States — in reporting suspicious transactions revealing criminal activity such as money laundering and terrorist financing.  The Study critiques current approaches to Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) reporting and suggests improvements, primarily in the form of enhanced information sharing among financial institutions and governments. In our first blog post in this series, we described some of the criticisms set forth by the Study regarding the general effectiveness of current suspicious activity reporting.  These critiques related to an ever-increasing amount of SAR filings, coupled in part with a lack a feedback by governments to the filing institutions regarding what sort of information was considered by law enforcement to be actually useful.  In our second post, we discussed the current landscape of AML information sharing in the United States, which is governed by Section 314 of the Patriot Act, and is an important component of many financial institutions’ ability to fulfill successfully their AML obligations.  This third and final blog post pertaining to the Study examines its findings and proposals for developing effective public–private financial information sharing partnerships (“FISPs”) in order to better detect, prevent, and combat money laundering and terrorist financing.  Observing that modern financial crime “operates in real time, is most often international in scale and can be highly sophisticated ad adaptive to avoid detection,” the Study generally posits that AML systems ideally should include real-time and cross-border information sharing. Continue Reading Combatting Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Through Enhanced AML Information Sharing

Second in a Three-Part Series of Blog Posts

As we recently blogged, the Royal United Services Institute (“RUSI”) for Defence and Security Studies — a U.K. think tank – has released a study:  The Role of Financial Information-Sharing Partnerships in the Disruption of Crime (the “Study”).  The Study focuses on international efforts — including efforts by the United States — regarding the reporting of suspicious transactions revealing criminal activity such as money laundering and terrorist financing.  The Study critiques current approaches to Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) reporting, and suggests improvements, primarily in the form of enhanced information sharing among financial institutions and governments.

In our first blog post in this series, we described some of the criticisms set forth by the Study regarding the general effectiveness of suspicious activity reporting, which the Study described as often presenting little or no “operational value to active law enforcement investigations.” In this second blog post pertaining to the Study, we will discuss the current landscape of AML information sharing in the United States — which is governed by Section 314 of the Patriot Act, and which is an important component of many financial institutions’ ability to fulfill successfully their AML obligations. In the third and final blog post pertaining to the Study, we will circle back to the Study and examine its findings and proposals for an enhanced process of information sharing by financial institutions and governments in order to better fight money laundering and terrorism. Continue Reading AML Information Sharing in the U.S. – Section 314 of the Patriot Act

Despite the staggering $8 billion figure estimated to be spent on global compliance in 2017, U.S.-based rules regarding Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) remain anchored in their 1970s design. Contrary to the generally slow pace of Congressional action, new technologies may reshape the global financial system (“GFS”) and with it, the ability to detect and disrupt money laundering schemes and terrorist plots. Chief among these is blockchain, a peer-to-peer technology first implemented as the backbone of the virtual currency Bitcoin. Continue Reading Combating Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing with a Distributed Ledger