Are Proposed AML Regulations for Real Estate Closings and Settlements Soon to Follow?

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FINCEN”) announced on November 15 that it has renewed and revised its Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) that require U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind legal entities used in purchases of residential real estate performed without a bank loan or similar form of external financing.  The new GTOs extend through May 15, 2019.

Notably, the list of covered geographic areas has expanded, and the monetary threshold has been reduced significantly to $300,000, so that it now no longer applies only to so-called “high end” real estate purchases.  Further, purchases involving virtual currency are now included within the reach of the GTO — an expansion which is consistent with prior expansions which extended the GTOs’ reach to transactions involving wires and personal and business checks.  Currently, the GTOs broadly apply to any purchases made using currency or a cashier’s check, a certified check, a traveler’s check, a personal check, a business check, a money order in any form, a funds transfer, or virtual currency.

A “legal entity” subject to the GTO reporting regime is defined as “a corporation, limited liability company, partnership or other similar business entity, whether formed under the laws of a state, or of the United States, or a foreign jurisdiction.”  The “beneficial owner” who must be identified is defined as “each individual who, directly or indirectly, owns 25% or more of the equity interests of the Legal Entity purchasing real property in the Covered Transaction.”  This definition tracks the Beneficial Ownership rule issued by FinCEN in 2016 for customer due diligence by covered financial institutions for new legal entity accounts by focusing on 25% or more ownership percentage, but it differs from the Beneficial Ownership rule by not including a “control” prong in its definition of a beneficial owner.

The press release issued by FinCEN for the new GTOs summarizes things well and is set forth here:

The purchase amount threshold, which previously varied by city, is now set at $300,000 for each covered metropolitan area. FinCEN is also requiring that covered purchases using virtual currencies be reported. Previous GTOs provided valuable data on the purchase of residential real estate by persons implicated, or allegedly involved, in various illicit enterprises including foreign corruption, organized crime, fraud, narcotics trafficking, and other violations. Reissuing the GTOs will further assist in tracking illicit funds and other criminal or illicit activity, as well as inform FinCEN’s future regulatory efforts in this sector.

Today’s GTOs cover certain counties within the following major U.S. metropolitan areas: Boston; Chicago; Dallas-Fort Worth; Honolulu; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Miami; New York City; San Antonio; San Diego; San Francisco; and Seattle.

FinCEN appreciates the continued assistance and cooperation of the title insurance companies and the American Land Title Association in protecting the real estate markets from abuse by illicit actors.

The reporting is done through a special Currency Transaction Report, or CTR; the template for GTO reporting is here. Covered entities must retain relevant records for five years from the last effective day of the Orders (i.e., May 15, 2024) and must make them available to FinCEN and upon appropriate requests by law enforcement. FinCEN continues to maintain FAQs regarding the GTOs.

The latest GTOs represent a sustained scrutiny of the real estate market by FinCEN which began almost three years ago, and which has been expanded through repeated six-month increments.  The initial GTOs were issued in January 2016 to only certain title insurance companies for certain purchases only in the Borough of Manhattan and Miami-Dade County.  Clearly, FinCEN finds the data gleaned from GTOs to be very useful; FinCEN previously has claimed that it “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.”

These sustained and expanding GTOs are also clearly part of the ongoing scrutiny by regulators across the globe regarding the issue of beneficial ownership and its role in potential money laundering schemes, as well as a similar global focus on money laundering through real estate and the general role of third party professionals who may facilitate money laundering.  As we have blogged, both FinCEN and the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) have focused for years on the AML risks inherent in real estate. For example, the December 2016 FATF Mutual Evaluation Report on the United States’ Measures to Combat Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing repeatedly highlighted the need for U.S. regulators and the real estate industry to do more to address money laundering and terrorist financing risks.  The FATF report’s executive summary asserted that “Residential Mortgage Lenders and Originators [RMLOs] . . . do not seem to have a good understanding of [money laundering] vulnerabilities in their sector or the importance of their role in addressing them.” The body of the FATF report elaborated that, “although banks have reasonably good AML/CFT programs overall, the same cannot be said of RMLOs, whose programs are still in the early implementation stage . . . .”

Future AML Regulation for Real Estate Closings and Settlements?

FinCEN’s press release states that the new GTOs “will inform FinCEN’s future regulatory efforts in this sector.” Presumably, FinCEN is using the data collected over the last three years to prepare to propose regulation which will formalize FinCEN’s scrutiny of the residential real estate market.  Indeed, the website for the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs currently states that, by the end of 2018, “FinCEN will issue an [Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making] soliciting information regarding various businesses and professions, including real estate brokers that could be covered by the BSA as persons involved in real estate closings and settlements[,]” with the comment period to extend through to December 2019.  Over 15 years ago, in April 2003, FinCEN issued a similar advanced notice of proposed rule making regarding AML program requirements for persons involved in real estate closings and settlements — but of course never issued a final rule.  Now, given the data from years of GTOs, coupled with the heightened global scrutiny of the real estate industry, such regulations finally may become a reality.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, issued last month a Report, entitled The Internal Revenue Service’s Bank Secrecy Act Program Has Minimal Impact on Compliance, which sets forth a decidedly dim view of the utility and effectiveness of the current Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance efforts by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”).  The primary conclusions of the detailed Report are that (i) referrals by the IRS to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) for potential Title 31 penalty cases suffer lengthy delays and have little impact on BSA compliance; (ii) the IRS BSA Program spent approximately $97 million to assess approximately $39 million in penalties for Fiscal Years (FYs) 2014 to 2016; and (iii) although referrals regarding BSA violations were made to IRS Criminal Investigation (“IRS CI”), most investigations were declined and very few ultimately were accepted by the Department of Justice for prosecution.

Arguably, the most striking claim by the Report is that “Title 31 compliance reviews [by the IRS] have minimal impact on Bank Secrecy Act compliance because negligent violation penalties are not assessed.”

A primary take-away from the Report is that an examination program lacking actual enforcement power is, unsurprisingly, not very effective.  The Report also highlights some potential problems which beset the IRS BSA Program, which include lack of staffing, lack of planning and coordination, and delay. Although the Report’s findings clearly suggest that what the IRS BSA Program really needs are resources and enhanced enforcement power, the repeated allusions in the Report to a certain purposelessness of the current BSA examination regime nonetheless might help fuel the current debate regarding possible AML/BSA reform, with an eye towards curbing regulatory burden.

The Report made five specific recommendations to the IRS for remedial steps. We will focus on four of those recommendations, and the findings upon which they rest:

  • Coordinate with FINCEN on the authority to assert Title 31 penalties, or reprioritize BSA Program resources to more productive work;
  • Leverage the BSA Program’s Title 31 authority and annual examination planning in the development of the IRS’s virtual currency strategy;
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the newly implemented review procedures for FinCEN referrals; and
  • Improve the process for referrals to IRS CI.

Continue Reading U.S. Treasury Report: IRS BSA Program “Has Minimal Impact on Compliance”

Director Blanco Emphasizes Investigatory Leads and Insights Into Illicit Activity Trends Culled from Nationwide BSA Data

As we just blogged, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) Director Kenneth Blanco recently touted the value of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) in the context of discussing anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement and regulatory  activity involving digital currency.  Shortly thereafter, Director Blanco again stressed the value of SARs, this time during remarks before the 11th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference and Expo, which caters to the AML concerns of the gaming industry.

It is difficult to shake the impression that Director Blanco is repeatedly and publically emphasizing the value of SARs, at least in part, in order to provide a counter-narrative to a growing reform movement — both in the United States and abroad — which: (i) questions the investigatory utility to governments and the mounting costs to the financial industry of the current SAR reporting regime, and (ii) has resulted in proposed U.S. legislation which would raise the minimum monetary thresholds for filing SARs and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”), and require a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Continues to Push Value of SARs and Other BSA Data

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

Earlier this month, the District Court for the Central District of California imposed a prison sentence of one year and a day, with three years of supervised release, on defendant Theresa Lynn Tetley, who had pleaded guilty to: (i) the unlicensed operation of a digital currency exchange due to failure register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960(a) and (b)(1)(B), and (ii) a money laundering charge, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(3)(B), arising out of an undercover “sting” operation run by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation involving the attempt to conceal proceeds supposedly obtained by selling drugs.  Tetley also was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and forfeit 40 Bitcoin, $292,264 in cash, and 25 gold bars that were the alleged proceeds of her illegal activity.

The Court imposed a sentence significantly lower than the sentence of 30 months requested by the government, a recommendation which already was lower than the advisory sentencing range recommended by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) of 46 to 57 months in prison, as calculated by the U.S. Probation Office.

Tetley, a 50 year old woman living in Southern California, is a former stockbroker and real estate investor. She operated her digital currency exchange under the alias “Bitcoin Maven” for over three years, running an unregistered Bitcoin for cash exchange service.  According to the government, her service “fueled a black-market financial system” that “purposely and deliberately existed outside the regulated bank industry” and which catered to an alleged major darknet vendor of illegal narcotics.  According to the defense, however, the defendant “departed from a lifetime of integrity and good deeds and showed terrible judgment by failing to comply with federal registration requirements and buying bitcoins from individuals who represented themselves as engaged in criminal activity.”

In this post, we will drill into this sentencing and the parties’ respective positions, which provide a window into the prosecution and sentencing of alleged crimes involving both digital currency and undercover money laundering operations — and into the process for the sentencing of federal crimes in general, and how other factors which are entirely unrelated to the facts of the specific offense can be important.  Further, the Tetley case is interesting in part because it represents a sort of “hybrid” case — seen from time to time in money laundering cases involving professionals — which straddles both the typically very different realms of “pure” financial crime cases and illegal narcotics cases.  The government sentencing memorandum is here; the defense sentencing memorandum is here. Continue Reading Unlicensed Bit Coin Exchange Operator Sentenced to One Year and a Day for Attempted Money Laundering in Undercover Sting Operation and Failure to Register with FinCEN

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced last week that it was disbanding the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, established under the Obama Administration. In its place, pursuant to an Executive Order, the DOJ plans to establish the Task Force on Market Integrity and Consumer Fraud (“Task Force”). The purpose—according to a DOJ press release—is to deter fraud on consumers and the government. Additionally, the Task Force will focus on money laundering, “including the recovery of proceeds;” fraud related to digital currency; tax fraud; health care fraud; securities and commodities fraud; and other financial crimes.

The Task Force is a multiagency effort. Although the DOJ will lead the group under Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Executive Order directs him to include a host of other federal agencies, including the Secretary of the Treasury, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Chairperson of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

This is a potentially important development regarding government enforcement, including as to money laundering. We and our colleague Alan Kaplinsky therefore discuss the new DOJ task force in detail here.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.

On April 19, 2018, the European Parliament (“EP”) adopted the European Commission’s (the “Commission”) proposal for a Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (“AMLD5”) to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering through the European Union’s (“EU”) financial system. The Commission proposed this directive on July 26, 2016 to build upon and amend the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (“AMLD4”) – before all 28 member states even implemented AMLD4.

Under AMLD4, the EU sought to combat money laundering and terrorist financing by imposing registration and customer due diligence requirements on “obliged entities,” which it defined as banks and other financial and credit institutions. It also called for the creation of central registers comprised of information about who owns companies operating in the EU and directed that these registers be accessible to national authorities and obliged entities.  However, the European Central Bank warned that AMLD4 failed to effectively address recent trends in money laundering and terrorist financing, which have spanned multiple jurisdictions and fallen both within and outside of the traditional financial sector.  As a result, and in response to recent terrorist attacks in Europe and to the Panama Papers, the EP has adopted AMLD5 to more effectively keep pace with these recent trends.

Although AMLD5 contains several important provisions, including a proposed public registry of beneficial owners of legal entities, we focus here on how AMLD5 addresses, for the first time, the potential money laundering and terrorist financing risks posed by virtual currencies. Continue Reading The Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive: Extending the Scope of the European Union’s Regulatory Authority to Virtual Currency Transactions

But Noncustomer Plaintiffs May Face Uphill Battle Proving Digital Currency Exchange’s Actual Liability

Earlier this week, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, in an unpublished opinion, that Coinbase Inc., an online platform used for buying, selling, transferring, and storing digital currency, could not compel arbitration on a former customer of Cryptsy, a now-defunct cryptocurrency exchange, in his proposed class action suit alleging that Coinbase helped to launder $8 million of Cryptsy customers’ assets. Leidel v. Coinbase, Inc., Dkt. 17-12728.

In so holding, the Court found that the plaintiff’s allegations emanated not from the User Agreement between Coinbase and Cryptsy’s CEO, Paul Vernon, but from extra-contractual duties “allegedly” found in federal statutes and regulations, specifically the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  As we previously have blogged, courts have held that financial institutions generally do not owe a duty of care to a noncustomer and that no special duty of care arises from the duties and obligations set forth in the BSA absent a special relationship or contractual relationship. Moreover, there is no private right of action stemming from the BSA. Nor does the BSA define a financial institution’s standard of care for the purposes of a negligence claim.

Coinbase is registered as a Money Services Business with FinCEN, and is otherwise required to comply with the BSA. However, if courts treat Coinbase as it would any other financial institution (which we have no reason to believe that they would not), Plaintiff, having avoided the contractual arbitration provision, has an uphill battle to show that Coinbase had a duty of care to noncustomers to prevent AML failures. Continue Reading Coinbase Cannot Force Noncustomers to Arbitrate Suit Alleging Violations of BSA/AML Duties

Australia announced on April 11 that all digital currency exchanges operating in the country will be regulated by the Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (“AUSTRAC”), the country’s financial intelligence agency.  A byproduct of the government’s Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Counter Terrorism Financing (“CTF”) Act (on which we previously have blogged, both here and here), the new laws require all “digital currency exchange providers” with operations in Australia to register with AUSTRAC and, additionally, meet compliance and reporting obligations by May 14.

AUSTRAC’s new policing mandate represents a meaningful step in strengthening the country’s efforts under the AML/CTF Act, first enacted in 2006.  In brief, that law—now applicable to all digital currency exchanges operating in Australia—requires all regulated entities such as banks and money transfer operators to collect information to establish a customer’s identity, monitor transactions, and report activity that is suspicious or involves cash over $10,000 Australian dollars.  As summarized by AUSTRAC on its website, the AML/CTF Act:

. . . . places a number of obligations on reporting entities when they provide designated services, including:

Reporting entities determine how they meet their obligations based on their assessment of the risk of whether providing a designated service to a customer may facilitate money laundering or terrorism financing.  These requirements echo similar AML regulatory requirements in the United States that require digital currency exchangers and administrators to register with FinCEN as money services businesses, and with the various States as money transmitter businesses.  AUSTRAC also has issued a guide for digital currency exchange service businesses to prepare and implement their AML/CTF programs.  The guide sets forth a check list of tasks necessary to developing and maintaining an adequate AML/CTF program, including the completion of a risk assessment of the business, designing a training program, and creating procedures for responding to AUSTRAC feedback. Continue Reading Australia’s Financial Intelligence Agency Implements AML Regulation of Digital Currencies

Last week, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order banning “all transactions” and “dealings” by any individual or entity in the United States that involve “any digital currency, digital coin, or digital token” issued by Venezuela.  This Executive Order was instituted just under a month after President Nicholas Maduro launched the pre-sale of “petro,” a cryptocurrency backed by the Venezuelan government’s crude oil reserves.  Since its inception, the petro has been met with deep skepticism by both the market and the Venezuelan legislature, but President Maduro—through petro’s official website—claims it has raised over $735 million in its pre-sale.  The opposition in the Venezuelan legislature has denounced petro as an illegal issuance of debt.

We previously have blogged about alleged money-laundering violations by Venezuelan oilmen and OFAC’s designation of the Vice President of Venezuela as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker.  This is only the most recent in a long line of sanctions targeting the Venezuelan government and its state-controlled oil industry.

On the back of this new Executive Order, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) has issued new FAQs relating to virtual currency, both to regulate the petro and assert its power in the virtual currency space.  As one might suspect, OFAC has decided to treat virtual currency in the same way it treats fiat currency and other property: if the individual is on Specially Designated Nationals (“SDN”) list, transactions are barred no matter what form of currency is used.  If a United States citizen or entity is involved, or is otherwise subject to United States jurisdiction, they “are responsible for ensuring that they do not engage in unauthorized transactions prohibited by OFAC sanctions.”  The OFAC FAQs specifically request “technology companies; administrators, exchangers, and users of digital currencies; and other payment processors” to develop compliance plans.  Obviously, these compliance plans would have to take into account blockchain and virtual currency technology that is constantly evolving. Continue Reading U.S. Bans Venezuela’s Oil-Backed Virtual Currency, “Petro,” and Announces Plans to Publish SDNs’ Virtual Currency Addresses