On July 17, FinCEN named FBME Bank Ltd., formerly known as the Federal Bank of the Middle East, as a foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern pursuant to Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. As detailed in a notice of finding, FinCEN asserts that the bank attracts illicit finance businesses by soliciting high-risk customers and promoting its weak AML controls. FinCEN explains that the bank changed its country of incorporation numerous times, partly due to its inability to adhere to regulatory requirements, and has established itself with a nominal headquarters in Tanzania. However, according to FinCEN, it transacts over 90 percent of its global banking business through branches in Cyprus and has taken active steps to evade oversight by the Cypriot regulatory authorities in the recent past. FinCEN is proposing a rule that, once final, will prohibit covered U.S. financial institutions from opening or maintaining correspondent or payable-through accounts for FBME, and for other foreign banks being used to process transactions involving FBME. The proposal also would require covered financial institutions to apply special due diligence to their correspondent accounts maintained on behalf of foreign banks to guard against processing any transactions involving FBME. Comments on the proposed rule are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On July 14, the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) concluded its review of a long-awaited FinCEN proposal to establish customer due diligence requirements for financial institutions, sending the rule back to FinCEN. In its spring 2014 rulemaking agenda, Treasury updated the timeline for the rule to indicate it could be proposed in July with a 60 day comment period. OIRA’s public records do not provide information about what, if any, changes OIRA sought or required prior to FinCEN finalizing the proposal. The public portion of the FinCEN rulemaking has been ongoing since February 2012 when FinCEN released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit comment on potential requirements for financial institutions to (i) conduct initial due diligence and verify customer identities at the time of account opening; (ii) understand the purpose and intended nature of the account; (iii) identify and verify all customers’ beneficial owners; and (iv) monitor the customer relationship and conduct additional due diligence as needed. FinCEN subsequently held a series of roundtable meetings, summaries of which it later published.
On May 28, FinCEN published Advisory FIN-2014-A005, which updates advice related to trade-based money laundering (TBML) to address the increased use of “funnel accounts.” FinCEN explains that individuals or businesses may establish an account in one geographic area that receives multiple cash deposits, and from which the funds are withdrawn in a different geographic area with little time elapsing between the deposits and withdrawals. FinCEN states that criminal organizations may use wires and checks issued from those accounts to move illicit narcotics proceeds to the accounts of businesses offering trade goods and services. The Advisory details this TBML scheme and offers a number of red flags that could indicate a funnel account is being used as part of such a scheme. FinCEN cautions that because some red flag activities may be legitimate financial activities in appropriate circumstances, financial institutions should evaluate indicators of potential TBML activity in combination with other red flags and the expected transaction activity for the customer before making determinations of suspiciousness. The Advisory reminds institutions of their SAR reporting obligations in the event activities are determined to be suspicious.
On May 20, FinCEN issued Advisory FIN-2014-A004, warning financial institutions about the risk of illicit financial activity conducted by individuals with passports from St. Kitts and Nevis (SKN), which allows individuals to obtain passports through a citizenship-through-investment program. The program offers citizenship to any non-citizen who either invests in designated real estate with a value of at least $400,000, or contributes $250,000 to the SKN Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation. FinCEN believes that illicit actors are using the program to obtain SKN citizenship in order to mask their identity and geographic background for the purpose of evading U.S. or international sanctions or engaging in other financial crime. FinCEN advises financial institutions to conduct risk-based customer due diligence to mitigate the risk that a customer is disguising his or her identity for such an illicit purchase. FinCEN further reminds institutions of SAR filing obligations related to known or suspected illegal activity and potential OFAC obligations.
On May 6, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by voice vote three financial services bills: (i) H.R. 2672, which would require the CFPB to allow individuals and businesses to apply to have an area designated as “rural” for purposes of exemptions to the CFPB mortgage rules; (ii) H.R. 3329, which would require the Federal Reserve Board to allow bank holding companies and savings and loan holding companies with assets of less than $1 billion to incur higher amounts of debt when acquiring other banks than are allowed for larger holding companies—the current asset ceiling for that special allowance is $500 million and applies only to bank holding companies; and (iii) H.R. 4386, which would permit FinCEN, in fulfilling its responsibility to supervise registered money services businesses (MSBs), to rely on state agency examinations of MSBs that provide international remittance transfer services and other non-bank financial institutions such as gaming establishments and jewel merchants.
On April 29, FinCEN issued five rulings in response to companies who sought clarification regarding whether their company is a money service business under the BSA. In FIN-2014-R006, FinCEN determined that a company that operates an online real-time deposit, settlement, and payment services platform for banks, businesses, and consumers is considered a money transmitter, not a provider of prepaid access, and should be registered as a money services business under BSA regulations. In two other rulings—FIN-2014-R004 and FIN-2014-R005— FinCEN clarified the exemption from the money transmitter definition for persons that accept and transmit funds “only integral to the sale of goods or the provision of services, other than money transmission services.” FinCEN determined that the escrow services at issue in FIN-2014-R004 and the transaction management services at issue in FIN-2014-R005 fit within that exemption because the acceptance and transmission of funds in these cases is not a separate and discrete service in addition to the underlying service, but instead is a necessary and integral part of the service itself. Therefore, these companies are not considered to be money transmitters subject to registration. FinCEN determined in FIN-2014-R007 that a company that rents computer systems used to mine virtual currencies is not a money transmitter. Finally, in FIN-2014-R008, FinCEN determined that although the company, which uses armored cars to facilitate the exchange of coins and cash, does not qualify for the “armored car” exemption in the money transmitter definition, it is still not considered a money transmitter. FinCEN stated that the transportation of currency and/or coin of certain denominations from the company’s vault to the customer’s location and the return transportation of currency and/or coin in the exact amount of the change provided to the company’s own vault does not constitute the acceptance of value from one person and the transportation of such value to another person or location.
On April 24, FinCEN released an assessment of civil money penalty against a Florida money services business (MSB) and its owner for failing to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act’s program, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements. FinCEN determined that since at least 2008, the MSB, which operated as both an independent check casher and as a foreign currency exchange dealer, willfully violated the BSA by failing to register with FinCEN and failing to develop and implement an effective AML program. Specifically, FinCEN found that the MSB lacked adequate AML programs to verify the identities of persons conducting transactions, to monitor for suspicious activities, to identify currency transactions exceeding $10,000, and to ensure that the MSB filed the required currency transaction reports (CTRs) in a timely manner. According to FinCEN, the MSB also failed to implement internal controls sufficient for creating and retaining adequate BSA records related to currency exchange, and its owner and compliance officer failed to conduct a BSA/AML risk assessment. As a result of the compliance deficiencies, FinCEN determined the MSB failed to file, or failed to timely file CTRs on $4.5 million worth of transactions. The MSB and its owner admitted to these determinations and agreed to pay a $10,000 penalty.
On April 11, the Treasury Department submitted to the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) FinCEN’s long-awaited proposed rule to establish customer due diligence requirements for financial institutions. Under executive order, each agency is required to submit for regulatory review rules resulting from “significant regulatory actions,” and OIRA has 90 days to complete or waive the review. The public portion of the FinCEN rulemaking has been ongoing since February 2012 when FinCEN released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit comment on potential requirements for financial institutions to (i) conduct initial due diligence and verify customer identities at the time of account opening; (ii) understand the purpose and intended nature of the account; (iii) identify and verify all customers’ beneficial owners; and (iv) monitor the customer relationship and conduct additional due diligence as needed. FinCEN subsequently held a series of roundtable meetings, summaries of which it later published.
On March 25, FinCEN issued an advisory notice, FIN-2014-A003, in which it provided guidance to financial institutions for reviewing their obligations and risk-based approaches with respect to certain jurisdictions. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recently updated its lists of jurisdictions that appear in two documents: (i) jurisdictions that are subject to the FATF’s call for countermeasures or Enhanced Due Diligence as a result of the jurisdictions’ Anti-Money Laundering/Counter-Terrorist Financing (AML/CFT) deficiencies, or (ii) jurisdictions identified by the FATF as having AML/CFT deficiencies. The advisory notice (i) summarizes the changes made by the FATF; (ii) provides specific guidance regarding jurisdictions listed in each category; and (iii) reiterates that if a financial institution knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect that a transaction involves funds derived from illegal activity or that a customer has otherwise engaged in activities indicative of money laundering, terrorist financing, or other violation of federal law or regulation, the financial institution must file a Suspicious Activity Report.
This week, Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen and FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery outlined the Treasury Department’s approach to regulation of virtual currency. Mr. Cohen acknowledged that large scale adoption of virtual currency is possible, but asserted that the long term viability of virtual currency is dependent on establishing consumer and investor protections, and addressing the risk that virtual currency can be used to facilitate illicit finance. Although Treasury does not currently see widespread use of virtual currencies in terrorism financing or sanctions evasion, Mr. Cohen highlighted those risks in addition to money laundering risk posed by the anonymous nature of virtual currencies. Treasury’s basic policy approach is to seek a balance between allowing new technologies to flourish while ensuring systems are sufficiently transparent to protect the U.S. economy. Mr. Cohen made clear that Treasury will err on the side of transparency when necessary. Currently, Treasury and FinCEN are focused on “the moment ‘real’ money is exchanged into virtual currency, and when virtual currency is exchanged back into ‘real’ money.” Mr. Cohen believes that such an approach is sufficient given current adoption levels, but added that Treasury will need to consider whether to apply “cash-like” reporting requirements to virtual currency when it appears that “daily financial life can be conducted for long stretches fully ‘within’ a virtual currency universe.” Treasury is advancing its objectives and approach internationally through the Financial Action Task Force, which Treasury anticipates will publish an updated paper on virtual currency definitions and risks later this year. Finally, both officials announced that, for the first time, Treasury will include a member of the virtual currency community as part of the Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group, which advises Treasury on anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing policy.
On March 5, a group of 16 Democratic U.S. House members sent letters to the leaders of the Federal Reserve Board, the OCC, the FDIC, and the NCUA requesting that the agencies issue guidance that would provide legitimate marijuana businesses access to the federal banking system. Last November, those agencies declined to provide such guidance, stating that the DOJ and FinCEN first needed to agree on a framework to apply BSA/AML provisions to banks seeking to serve marijuana businesses. With FinCEN and DOJ having recently issued such guidance, the lawmakers renewed their push for legitimate marijuana businesses—now operating in 20 states and the District of Columbia—to have “equal access to banking services as other licensed businesses.”
On February 20, in remarks to the Florida International Bankers Association Anti-Money Laundering Conference, FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery reviewed FinCEN’s key initiatives over the past year and outlined priorities going forward. She discussed FinCEN’s efforts with regard to virtual currency risks and stated that it is important for financial institutions that deal in virtual currency to put effective AML/CFT controls in place. She noted that it is also important for all stakeholders to keep virtual currency concerns in perspective given the relatively small size of the market. FinCEN is growing increasingly concerned with third party money launderers who layer transactions, create or use shell or shelf corporations, use political influence to facilitate financial activity, or engage in other schemes to infiltrate financial institutions and circumvent AML controls. FinCEN intends to pursue such actors regardless of where they are located. Director Shasky Calvery also reiterated concerns about securities firms that offer services similar to banks, and promised continued focus on threats posed by trade-based money laundering. With regard to its policy initiatives, FinCEN intends to engage stakeholders in a discussion of “balancing the policy motivations behind data privacy and secrecy laws in different jurisdictions with the need for an appropriate level of transparency to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.” The Director noted that this issue is particularly critical in the area of correspondent banking.
On February 20, FinCEN finalized a rule that will require Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Home Loan Banks (the GSEs) to develop AML programs and to file SARs directly with FinCEN. Under the current system, the GSEs file fraud reports with the FHFA, which then files SARs with FinCEN when warranted under FinCEN’s reporting standards. The new regulations are substantially similar to the version proposed in November 2011, and are intended to streamline the reporting process and provide more timely access to data about potential fraud. The AML provisions of the new regulations implement the BSA’s four minimum requirements: (i) the development of internal policies, procedures, and controls; (ii) the designation of a compliance officer; (iii) an ongoing employee training program; and (iv) an independent audit function to test programs. The SAR regulation requires reporting of suspicious activity in accordance with standards and procedures contained in all of FinCEN’s SAR regulations. In addition, under the streamlined system, the GSEs and their directors, officers, and employees will qualify for the BSA’s “safe harbor” provisions, which are intended to encourage covered institutions to report suspicious activities without fear of liability. The final rule does not require the GSEs to comply with any other BSA reporting or recordkeeping regulations, such as currency transaction reporting. The rule takes effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register and the GSEs will have 180 days from publication to comply.
On February 14, FinCEN issued guidance to clarify BSA expectations for financial institutions seeking to provide services to marijuana-related businesses in states that have legalized certain marijuana-related activity. The guidance was issued in coordination with the DOJ, which provided updated guidance to all U.S. Attorneys. The FinCEN guidance reiterates the general principle that the decision to open, close, or refuse any particular account or relationship should be made by each financial institution based on its particular business objectives, an evaluation of the risks associated with offering a particular product or service, its ability to conduct thorough customer due diligence, and its capacity to manage those risks effectively. The guidance details the necessary elements of a customer due diligence program, including consideration of whether a marijuana-related business implicates one of the priorities in the DOJ memorandum or violates state law. FinCEN notes that the obligation to file a SAR is unaffected by any state law that legalizes marijuana-related activity and restates the SAR triggers. The guidance identifies the types of SARs applicable to marijuana-related businesses and describes the conditions under which each type should be filed.
On January 30, in remarks to SIFMA’s AML and Financial Crimes Conference, FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery stressed the importance of establishing a “culture of compliance” at financial institutions to support effective AML safeguards. The Director’s comments reinforce similar remarks made in recent months by both the Deputy U.S. Attorney General and Comptroller Curry. And like Comptroller Curry, Ms. Shasky Calvery highlighted the need for better information sharing not only within institutions but between institutions. FinCEN agrees with industry feedback that the agency needs to improve its own ability to share information. Also part of a broader theme among enforcement authorities, the Director explained that financial institutions should take responsibility when their actions violate the BSA, not only by admitting to the facts alleged by FinCEN but also by acknowledging a violation of the law. She highlighted specific risks in the securities sector including those related to the use of cash, and explained that securities firms that provide bank-like services need to consider the vulnerabilities associated with engaging in such services and must ensure that their compliance programs are commensurate with those risks.