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.

The U.S. money laundering statutes have a broad global reach and may be used to prosecute cases involving alleged schemes perpetrated almost entirely outside of the United States. These types of allegations seem to be an increasingly common fact pattern as cross-border cases proliferate and U.S. prosecutions more often involve conduct occurring largely overseas. A recent indictment fits squarely within this trend.

GlobeThe U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced the unsealing of four related and complex indictments returned in the District of Columbia; according to the DOJ press release, 19 people were charged “with taking part in various international fraud and money laundering conspiracies that led to more than $13 million in losses[.]” The press release credited a broad array of law enforcement agencies, including Interpol. Again emphasizing the international aspect of the indictments, the press release stated that “[s]ixteen of the 19 defendants were arrested . . . . in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and Israel[,]” and that “[t]he arrests followed a multi-year investigative effort by federal and international law enforcement agencies to target multimillion-dollar fraud and money laundering schemes perpetrated by a transnational organized crime network.”

The four indictments are lengthy and we will discuss only one of them, in order to focus on the potentially broad jurisdictional reach of the “international” money laundering provision under 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2). Continue Reading Indictments Spotlight Broad Extraterritorial Reach of U.S. Money Laundering Statutes

Employers increasingly face the difficult scenario of employees who misappropriate company data in the pursuit of whistleblower claims alleging misconduct by the employer. Such cases can present a complex mix of regulatory, cybersecurity, and employment issues. These issues were front and center in a recent whistleblower case pitting a bank against its former internal auditor, who engaged in computer-facilitated misappropriation of the bank’s confidential information allegedly to support whistleblower conduct.Whistle

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California recently declined to summarily adjudicate whether the employee’s confidentiality agreement precluded any whistleblower affirmative defense based on the employee’s alleged violation of computer fraud, contract, and tort laws. The whistleblower laws in question included the Bank Secrecy Act, Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, and the California Labor Code.

In Erhart v. Bofi Holding, plaintiff Charles Matthew Erhart filed a whistleblower complaint against his employer, Bank of the Internet (BofI), alleging BofI retaliated against him for reporting unlawful conduct to the government. BofI, in turn, filed a complaint, alleging that Erhart breached his employee confidentiality agreement by misappropriating confidential data relating to his employer and its clients and disseminating that data to the government, family members, and the national press.

Erhart illustrates the complex and practical problems faced by employers dealing with employees who engage in conduct that would otherwise constitute computer fraud, intellectual property theft, breaches of employment-related agreements and policies, and related tort claims under the mantle of “whistleblower.” A key issue in the case was whether Erhart would be entitled to pursue his retaliation claims before a jury or would be precluded from doing so as a matter of law given his computer-facilitated theft of confidential information. Continue Reading Bank Whistleblower Suits Highlight Limits of Employee Confidentiality Agreements

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.

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

The Executive Vice President of Venezuela, Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah (El Aissami), was designated on Monday by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act). According to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), El Aissami directly facilitated significant shipments of drugs from Venezuela into the United States and Mexico, and helped and protected other drug dealers operating within Venezuela.  OFAC also has alleged that El Aissami’s “primary frontman,” Samark Jose Lopez Bello, oversaw the finances of these operations and launders drug proceeds through “an international network of petroleum, distribution, engineering, telecommunications, and asset holding companies.”

After providing some additional details regarding these designations, we will discuss the Kingpin Act itself, a powerful and unique enforcement tool. Continue Reading Kingpin Act Wielded Against Vice President of Venezuela