On October 13, the DOJ announced that a Columbus, Georgia resident pleaded guilty to one count of operating an unlicensed money transmitting business. According to the DOJ, between February 2013 and March 2014, the individual unlawfully owned, operated, and managed multiple money transmitting companies throughout the Columbus area, offering check-cashing services. The individual allegedly knew that he was required to register his company with FinCEN and with the state of Georgia, but failed to do so. Scheduled to face sentencing in January 2016, the individual faces a statutory maximum sentencing of five years and has agreed to a forfeiture order of more than $1,300,000.
Texas Department of Banking Issues Supervisory Memorandum to Money Services Business License Holders
On October 29, the Texas Department of Banking (the Department) issued a supervisory memorandum to Money Services Business (MSB) license holders. The purpose of the memorandum “is to provide license holders with industry best practices regarding the documentation of [authorized delegate] and agent compliance monitoring efforts.” According to the Department, agents and Authorized Delegates (AD) pose substantial compliance risks to MSBs, with agent and AD file review comprising “a significant component of the examination process for assessing compliance with AML Program requirements and Texas law.” The memorandum provides MSBs with industry guidance on how to meet regulators’ expectations for maintaining documentation in compliance with agent and AD oversight. The Department identifies various documents that support effective agent and AD on-boarding due diligence, including: (i) agent and AD BSA policies and procedures; (ii) approval by foreign regulators to conduct money transmission; (iii) evidence of initial AML/BSA training; and (iv) credit review and approval documents, such as financials and credit reports. Moreover, the memorandum indicates that on-going due diligence requires MSBs to maintain, among other things, evidence to support (i) periodic BSA training; (ii) agent compliance with independent AML review requirements; and (iii) the license holder’s review of updated BSA/AML Program policies and procedures.
California Department of Business Oversight Issues Opinion Letter Declaring Foreign Check Clearing Services Not Subject to State’s Money Transmission Act
On August 24, the California Department of Business Oversight issued a redacted opinion letter clarifying that foreign check clearing services are not considered money transmission subject to the Money Transmission Act. In order to fall under the state’s Financial Code’s definition of money transmission, a financial institution must receive money or monetary value for transmission within the United States. Emphasizing the domestic prerequisite outlined in the code, the DBO’s opinion indicates that if a bank establishes an exchange rate for an American financial institution that has received a check for deposit written against a foreign bank, the exchange rate service provided by the bank is considered a foreign check clearing service and not “receiving money or monetary value in the United States.” Accordingly, such check clearing activity does not fall under the California Financial Code’s definition of money transmission.
DOJ Assistant AG Caldwell Delivers Remarks at the ABA’s National Institute on Bitcoin and Other Digital Currencies
Today, Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell delivered remarks at the ABA’s National Institute on Bitcoin and Other Digital Currencies. Speaking on the DOJ Criminal Division’s approach to the developing landscape of virtual currency, Caldwell acknowledged the legitimate uses of virtual currencies, such as having the ability to lower costs for brick and mortar businesses and its potential to promote a more efficient online marketplace, while also addressing the Department’s concern for the criminal activity surrounding virtual currencies, noting, “virtual currency facilitates a wide range of traditional criminal activities as well as sophisticated cybercrime schemes.” Citing recent actions against various individuals and groups involved in criminal activities that “sought to exploit decentralized systems such as Bitcoin” – specifically, Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht; and Carl Force and Shaun Bridges, both involved in the Baltimore Silk Road Task Force – Caldwell stressed that there are “many exchanges that don’t concern themselves with following the law.” She explained that the primary legal bases for enforcement are money services business, money transmission, and anti-money laundering statutes, as well as state money transmitter licensing laws and, in some states like New York, virtual-currency specific licensing requirements. Caldwell also noted the Department’s partnership with FinCEN, summarizing its involvement in the Ripple Labs resolution to show that “compliance and remediation can lead to a more favorable resolution of criminal investigations.” Further, Caldwell observed that while there is no “one-size-fits-all” compliance program, the adherence to regulations and state licensing laws by those involved in virtual currency businesses will reduce liability and complying with anti-money laundering guidelines will allow “the legitimate use of virtual currency to grow and be responsive to infiltration and abuse by criminal elements.”
Today, FinCEN announced the assessment of a civil money penalty against a Los Angeles-based Money Services Business (MSB) and its owner for alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). During a 2011 examination of the MSB, FinCEN determined that, from October 1, 2010 through the present, the MSB knowingly violated the BSA by failing to (i) establish and ensure ongoing compliance with an adequate AML program; (ii) provide adequate training; and (iii) conduct independent testing of its compliance program. In addition, the MSB violated the BSA’s reporting requirements by failing to “file required currency transaction reports (“CTRs”) on all of its reportable transactions during the examination scope period,” and continued to file untimely CTRs even after the examination scope period ended on March 31, 2011. Finally, FinCEN expressed concern over the MSB owner’s failure to disclose that the MSB “frequently exchanged check for cash with another MSB, an arrangement known as ‘wholesaling’ or ‘bulk check cashing.’” According to the assessment document, the MSB’s owner, who was also the designated AML compliance officer, participated in the BSA violations by failing to accept his responsibility to “ensure that [an] AML program was in place, was effective, and was followed.” To resolve FinCEN’s allegations, the MSB and its owner admitted to violating the BSA program and its reporting requirements and will pay a civil money penalty of $60,000.
FinCEN Fines Michigan MSB For BSA/AML Violations, Bans Owner From Serving at Any U.S. Financial Institution
On May 29, a Michigan-based money service business (MSB), along with its owner, admitted to repeated violations of the BSA and have agreed to pay FinCEN a civil money penalty in the amount of $12,000. The company violated the BSA in numerous ways, including but not limited to: (i) failing to maintain a sufficient anti-money laundering program; (ii) engaging in high-risk transactions, including wire transfers to Yemen, totaling millions of dollars, without keeping proper records of the transfers or performing due diligence; and (iii) conducting suspicious transactions “with no apparent business or lawful purpose.” According to FinCEN, the MSB failed to monitor the suspicious transactions, had no review process in place, and neglected to file a Suspicious Activity Report or a Currency Transaction Report while operating as a business entity. Furthermore, in addition to the aforementioned MSB, the owner opened an additional MSB in October 2010, containing similar BSA deficiencies. The owner has “agreed to immediately and permanently cease serving as an employee, officer, director, or agent of any financial institution located in the United States or that conducts business within the United States.”
On March 27, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed S.B. 24, which modifies provisions related to persons and entities subject to the jurisdiction of Utah’s Department of Financial Institutions (DFI), amends the state’s Mortgage Lending and Servicing Act, and enacts the Money Transmitter Act. The Money Transmitter Act establishes new licensing requirements and grants rulemaking authority to the DFI to (i) prohibit practices that are misleading, unfair, or abusive, (ii) promote full disclosure of the terms and conditions of agreements between a customer and a money transmitter, and (iii) assure uniform application of applicable state or federal laws and regulations.
On January 21, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) announced a $122,400 penalty (Australian dollars) against a large financial services company for failing to register six affiliate businesses as remittance services providers. AUSTRAC serves as Australia’s regulator of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing activities. AUSTRAC noted the company’s voluntary disclosure was taken into consideration when determining its enforcement approach.
On November 10, FinCEN released a statement to reiterate that banking organizations can serve Money Services Businesses (MSB) while meeting obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act. FinCEN noted that there is concern that banks may be terminating the accounts of MSBs on a wholesale basis because of potential regulatory scrutiny and that as a result MSBs are losing access to banking services. FinCEN stated that they do “not support the wholesale termination of MSB accounts without regard to the risks presented or the bank’s ability to manage the risk.” Rather, the risks presented by a given MSB can vary and, therefore, financial institutions should assess the risks on a case-by-case basis. FinCEN expects that banking organizations will manage the risks associated with MSB accounts and are committed to addressing the “wholesale de-banking of an important part of the financial system.”
On October 8, the Treasury released a statement regarding its continued efforts to support the legitimate use of money transmitters by fostering financial inclusion and financial transparency, while simultaneously addressing its vulnerabilities of money laundering and terrorist financing. Highlighting its progress in the last 15 years, the statement notes that “record volumes of remittances are being transmitted through legitimate and transparent channels.” Looking forward, the treasury will improve upon its efforts to increase banking access for money transmitters by (i) making its expectations for banks clearer; (ii) improving AML/CFT controls and compliance; (iii) heightening AMC/CFT oversight; and (iv) reaching out to financial institutions and their customers. Finally, the Treasury is working with federal banking agencies to ensure that not all money transmitters are treated as high risk by banking institutions. Ensuring that these efforts are both domestic and international, the Treasury is working with the United Kingdom, the World Bank, and G-20.
On September 23, the CFPB issued a Final Rule that defines which nonbank covered persons are designated “larger participants” for purposes of the international money transfer market. In particular, this rule, which finalizes a January 2014 proposed rule, defines an entity as a larger participant if it has at least one million aggregate annual international money transfers. The final rule will be effective December 1, 2014. In addition, the Final Rule defines an international money transfer market to cover certain electronic transfers of funds sent by nonbanks that are international money transfer providers. These transfers must be requested by a sender in a State to be sent to a designated recipient in a foreign country. While the Final Rule’s definitions are modeled in part on the definitions of “remittance transfer” and related terms in the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) and its implementing regulation, Regulation E, there are some substantive differences. For example, transfers of $15 or less can be ‘‘international money transfers’’ but not “remittance transfers.” The CFPB provides a procedure for a person to dispute whether it qualifies as a larger participant in the international money transfer market and also asserts that there are only approximately 10 potential larger participants that qualify as small businesses.
FinCEN Rules Regulations on Money Services Businesses Do Not Apply to ISOs and Exempt Payment Processors
On August 27, FinCEN issued FIN-2014-R009, an administrative ruling clarifying that Independent Sales Organizations (“ISOs”) and exempt payment processors are not money transmitters subject to Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations applicable to Money Services Businesses (“MSBs”). Under BSA MSB regulations, the term “money transmitter” applies to any person that provides money transmission services or otherwise engages in the transfer of funds. The term “money transmission services” includes the acceptance of currency, funds, or other value that substitutes for currency from one person and the transmission of currency, funds, or other value that substitutes for currency to another location or person by any means. Applying these standards, FinCEN determined that BSA MSB regulations do not apply to an ISO, so long as it: (i) merely solicits merchants to offer them the credit and debit card processing services of two counterparties; and (ii) does not take possession or control of merchant funds at any point. However, FinCEN concluded that BSA MSB regulations will apply to a payment processor unless the payment processor qualifies for the payment processor exemption established by 31 CFR § 1010.100(ff)(5)(ii)(B) and clarified by FIN-2013-R002. Under this exemption, BSA MSB regulations do not apply to a payment processor, so long as it: (i) facilitates the purchase of goods or services, or the payment of bills for goods or services (other than money transmission itself); (ii) operates through clearance and settlement systems that admit only BSA-regulated financial institutions; (iii) provides its services pursuant to a formal agreement; and (iv) the agreement itself is at a minimum with the seller or creditor that provides the goods or services and receives the funds. For a copy of the ruling, please see: Application of Money Services Business Regulations to a Company Acting as an Independent Sales Organization and Payment Processor.
On June 6, the Kansas Office of State Bank Commissioner (OSBC) issued guidance on the regulatory treatment of virtual currencies under the Kansas Money Transmitter Act (KMTA). The guidance focuses on money transmission activities involving decentralized cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. The guidance states that cryptocurrencies in their current form are not covered by the KMTA because they do not fall within the definition of “money”—no cryptocurrency is currently authorized or adopted by any governmental entity as part of its currency—or “monetary value”—there is no recognized standard of value or set value for a single unit of a cryptocurrency. The guidance explains that since the KMTA does not apply to transmission of decentralized cryptocurrencies, an entity engaged solely in the transmission of such currency is not required to obtain a money transmitter license. The guidance adds that, if transmission of virtual currency includes the involvement of sovereign currency in a transaction, it may be considered money transmission depending on how the transaction is organized. The guidance provides several examples of common types of transactions involving cryptocurrency and whether the KMTA applies to each, and outlines for cryptocurrency businesses that conduct money transmission, and entities engaged in money transmission, actions necessary to comply with state law, including licensing.
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 May 5, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed HB 723, which requires state licensed money transmitters to (i) provide on transmittal forms a clear, concise, and conspicuous fraud warning that includes a toll-free telephone number for individuals to call to report fraud or suspected fraud; (ii) provide annual training to agents related to financial abuse and financial exploitation of elders; and (iii) allow an individual to voluntarily be disqualified from sending or receiving money transmissions in the state for a specified period of time. The changes, which take effect October 1, 2014, do not apply to a licensee or an agent that engages (i) in selling or issuing stored value devices, traveler’s checks, or money orders, or providing bill payer services, as long as the licensee or agent does not engage in any other business regulated under the money transmission law; or (ii) in the business of money transmission solely through the Internet.