Suspicious Activity Report (SAR)

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

FinCEN recentlty announced entry of a $2 million assessment against Lone Star National Bank, a private bank operating out of Texas, for the bank’s allegedly willful violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and inadequate Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) monitoring programs.  The primary violations relate to Lone Star’s alleged failure to comply with due diligence requirements imposed by Section 312 of the USA PATRIOT Act in establishing and conducting its correspondent banking relationship with a Mexican bank.  As a result of Lone Star’s insufficient due diligence and AML program, the Mexican bank was “allowed to move hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in suspicious cash shipments through the U.S. financial system in less than two years.”  The FinCEN’s announcement warns that this “action underscores the dangers that institutions face when taking on international correspondence activities without properly equipping themselves” to manage the enhanced obligations that arise with such relationships.

This new FinCEN assessment underscores the continued regulatory interest in the AML risks presented by correspondent banking relationships. We therefore first will provide a brief overview of correspondent banking relationships and the enhanced regulatory attention often paid to them. Armed with this context, we then will analyze the findings and lessons learned from the Lone Star assessment, including the value touted by FinCEN of Lone Star’s efforts to cooperate with its own investigation. Further, this new assessment suggests that the U.S. government does not always present a consistent voice regarding correspondent banking relationships: although the U.S. Treasury has tried to encourage financial institutions in general to not “de-risk” and thereby terminate correspondent banking relationships, we see that enforcement agencies continue to penalize institutions in individual cases for not mitigating sufficiently the risks of correspondent banking. Continue Reading FinCEN Fines Texas Bank $2M for Alleged Failure to Vet and Monitor Mexican Correspondent Banking Relationship – But Touts Bank’s Cooperation

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

U.K. Think Tank Report Criticizes International AML Reporting Regimes

First in a Three-Part Series of Blog Posts

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, money laundering, and terrorist financing.  The Study is a critique of current approaches to AML reporting.

In this first blog post on the Study, we will describe some of the criticisms set forth by the Study regarding the general effectiveness of suspicious activity reporting. Some of these criticisms will ring true with U.S. financial institutions, and echo in part criticisms previously raised by a detailed paper published by The Clearing House, a banking association and payments company. That paper, titled A New Paradigm: Redesigning the U.S. AML/CFT Framework to Protect National Security and Aid Law Enforcement (“The New Paradigm”), analyzes the effectiveness of the current AML and Combatting the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) regime in the U.S., identifies problems with that regime, and proposes reforms.  As we previously have blogged, The New Paradigm has argued that the regime for filing SARs is outdated, that “the combined data set [from filed SARs] has massive amounts of noise and little information of use to law enforcement,” and that “the SAR database includes no feedback loop [and] . . . . there is no mechanism for law enforcement to provide feedback on whether a given SAR produced a lead or was never utilized.”  These same criticisms are repeated in the Study, which looked at AML systems in the U.S, the U.K, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and Canada.  Although suspicious activity reporting is generally considered to be the engine which drives AML and money laundering enforcement by the government, the Study asserts: “Interviews with past and present {Financial Intelligence Units] heads as part of this project consistently raised figures of between 80% and 90% of [such reporting] being of no operational value to active law enforcement investigations.” Continue Reading Suspicious Activity Reports Rarely Provide “Operational Value” to Law Enforcement Investigations

In its Summer 2017 issue of Supervisory Insights, published last week, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) provides some insight into its examination process and outcomes for Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”)/Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) compliance in an article entitled The Bank Secrecy Act: A Supervisory Update (“Supervisory Update”).  Although the Supervisory Update also summarizes the BSA and its history, we will focus here on the discussion of FDIC examinations. Continue Reading FDIC Provides Some Statistics on Violations Found During BSA/AML Exams: One Percent of Exams Lead to Formal Enforcement Actions

FinCEN has announced the expansion of its Geographical Targeting Orders (GTOs) for high-end cash buyers of real estate. The expansion is two-fold. First, FinCEN has expanded the scope of Form 8300 reportable transactions to include “funds transfers” in addition to currency, cashier’s checks, certified checks, traveler’s check, personal checks, business checks, or money orders in any form. Second, FinCEN has added real estate transactions with a total purchase price of $3,000,000 or more in the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii. This brings the markets covered to seven metropolitan areas.

The renewed GTOs require title insurance companies to identify and report on the natural persons behind shell companies that make covered transactions. The renewed and expanded GTOs will be in effect from September 22, 2017 through March 20, 2018. FinCEN has again praised the “assistance and cooperation” of the title insurance industry in this effort.

On the same day as the GTO expansion, FinCEN published an “Advisory to Financial Institutions and Real Estate Firms and Professionals.” This Advisory is in line with our expectation that FinCEN would further expand their supervisory and enforcement activity in the real estate market, as recommended by the FATF in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report and highlighted in an April 12, 2016, speech by former FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery.

Continue Reading FinCEN Continues Its Focus on Real Estate Transactions through Advisory and GTOs

Part One of a Three-Part Series

We begin this week with a three-part series on banking and the marijuana industry. States continue to pass medical and recreational use marijuana legislation despite that the fact that the substance remains classified as a Schedule I drug subject to the federal Controlled Substances Act.  Thus, the medical and recreational marijuana industries continue to struggle with access to banking and credit, and those who attempt to serve these industries find themselves subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and the criminal money laundering provisions.  As we will detail this week, the struggle for financial institutions attempting to service the marijuana industry comes not only from the BSA and AML provisions, but in other forms.  We start this week with an overview of the guidance documents issued by the federal government which identify the enforcement priorities and also potential windows for financial institutions to service the marijuana industry.  We will follow up with a discussion of a recent federal court decision illustrating the practical difficulties of squaring the prohibitions of the federal drug laws with permissive state laws and the federal guidance documents.  We will conclude with an exploration of how federal agencies beyond the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), can further muddy these waters by staking out their own regulatory and enforcement priorities.  –Priya Roy Continue Reading Banking and the Marijuana Industry

On June 5, the SEC filed suit against Salt Lake City-based Alpine Securities, Corp. (“Alpine”). The complaint, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the broker-dealer ran afoul of AML rules by “routinely and systematically” (i) failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) for stock transactions it had flagged as suspicious or, (ii) on thousands of occasions between 2011 and 2015 when Alpine did file SARs, omitting key information, such as the criminal or regulatory history of customers and disclosures as to whether those customers represented a foreign institution.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), Alpine and other broker-dealers must report suspicious transactions in the form of SARs filed with FinCEN. These filings pertain to reports of transactions or patterns of transactions involving at least $5,000 wherein a covered entity “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” that the transaction involves funds representing ill-gotten gains; is intended to hide funds obtained from illegal activities; is designed to evade the BSA; or has no business or apparent lawful purpose and the filing institution knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction. SARs have a narrative section for the filer to describe the facts of the suspicious incident, which is regarded by law enforcement as a critical section.

The SEC has alleged that Alpine violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Rule 17a-8 promulgated thereunder, which require broker-dealers to comply with the recordkeeping, retention and report obligations of the BSA. Although Alpine had an AML/BSA compliance program (as is required for broker-dealers by both the BSA and FINRA Rule 3310), the complaint alleges that the program was not implemented properly in practice and mischaracterized what Alpine actually did. In part, the SEC alleges that Alpine used two standard templates for SAR filings which did not allow the filer to describe any of the red flags or other material information which caused Alpine to file the SAR. Importantly, the complaint also alleges that FINRA had examined Alpine and brought these deficiencies to its attention, but Alpine thereafter failed to take meaningful steps to address them and “continued its pattern of omitting material red flag and other information from its SARs.”

Much of Alpine’s business involves clearing microcap transactions. Although the broker-dealer has a history of disciplinary action by FINRA, the instant action also reflects a trend by the SEC to use AML rules as a means to combat alleged fraud related to the sale of microcap securities. Earlier this year, New York-based Windsor Street Capital also was charged with failing to file SARs; that matter, currently before an SEC administrative law judge, remains pending. All told, the action against Alpine exemplifies the SEC’s heightened interest in ensuring broker-dealers’ adherence to AML rules and standards. It also reiterates the need for any financial institution to implement effectively in practice its AML compliance plan: the best written compliance plan can turn into the centerpiece of regulators’ allegations if it merely becomes a catalogue of what the financial institution failed to do.

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