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 July 18, FinCEN published SAR Stats—formerly called By the Numbers—an annual compilation of numerical data gathered from the Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by financial institutions using FinCEN’s new unified SAR form and e-filing process. Among other things, the new form and process were designed to allow FinCEN to collect more detailed information on types of suspicious activity. As such, FinCEN describes the data presented in this first SAR Stats issue as “a new baseline for financial sector reporting on suspicious activity.” The primary purpose of the report is to provide a statistical overview of suspicious activity developments, including by presenting SAR data arranged by filing industry type for the more than 1.3 million unique SARs filed between March 1, 2012 and December 31, 2013. In addition, the redesigned annual publication includes a new SAR Narrative Spotlight, which focuses on “perceived key emerging activity trends derived from analysis of SAR narratives.” The inaugural Spotlight examines the emerging trend of Bitcoin related activities within SAR narrative data. It states that FinCEN is observing a rise in the number of SARs flagging virtual currencies as a component of suspicious activity, and provides for potential SAR filers an explanation of virtual currencies and the importance of SAR data in assessing virtual currency transactions.
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.
This week, FinCEN published its semiannual SAR Activity Review, which provides information about the preparation, use, and value of Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by financial institutions. The report identifies SAR trends, reviews law enforcement cases that demonstrate the importance and value of Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) data to the law enforcement community, and highlights issues related to financial exploitation of older Americans. FinCEN also published an annual companion report, “By the Numbers,” which compiles numerical data gathered from SARs filed by financial institutions.
On April 15, FinCEN issued Advisory FIN-2013-A002, which advises financial institutions to review regulations that require U.S. financial institutions to perform money laundering or other suspicious activity due diligence or enhanced due diligence for correspondent accounts and private banking accounts established, maintained, administered, or managed in the U.S. for foreign financial institutions or non-U.S. persons. The advisory states that as part of those requirements, covered institutions should be vigilant against transactions involving persons specifically designated for sanctions relating to Syria, as well as proxies acting on behalf of such persons. FinCEN advises institutions to (i) take reasonable risk-based steps with respect to the potential movement of assets that may be related to the current unrest in Syria, (ii) consider whether they have any financial contact with persons or entities (foreign or otherwise) that may be acting directly or indirectly for or on behalf of any senior foreign political figures of the Government of Syria, and (iii) file Suspicious Activity Reports when appropriate.
On March 7, FinCEN issued a notice reminding institutions that they must use FinCEN’s new electronic reports to file most Bank Secrecy Act Reports, including Suspicious Activity Reports, Currency Transaction Reports, Registration of Money Services Business, and Designation of Exempt Person Reports. In February 2012, FinCEN issued a final notice requiring electronic filing of most reports by July 1, 2012. Shortly thereafter, FinCEN made available new formats for those reports, which all institutions must begin using by April 1, 2013. The new forms will support the agency’s enforcement efforts. For example, FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery explained recently that in 2012 more than 23 percent of SAR filers selected “other” as the type of suspicious activity. The new form expands the number of options for type of activity being reported from 21 to 70 and adds a text field, allowing filers to described activities more accurately. FinCEN warned that companies that fail to comply with the electronic filing mandate may be subject to civil money penalties.
On February 26, FinCEN issued Advisory FIN-2013-A001 to remind financial institutions of their important role in identifying tax refund fraud and provide a list of red flags to aid in such identification. The Advisory also reminds institutions that they may be required to filed a SAR if they know, suspect or have reason to suspect that a transaction conducted or attempted by, at, or through the financial institution (i) involves funds derived from illegal activity or an attempt to disguise funds derived from illegal activity, (ii) is designed to evade regulations promulgated under the Bank Secrecy Act, or (iii) lacks a business or apparent lawful purpose. Institutions completing a tax refund fraud SAR should use the term “tax refund fraud” in the narrative section of the SAR and provide a detailed description of the activity, and are encouraged to notify their local IRS Criminal Investigation Field Office of the filed SAR.
This week the Supreme Court denied petitions for a writ of certiorari in two banking-related appeals. In Cummings v. Doughty, No. 12-351, the petitioners, a bank and its CEO, asked the Supreme Court to determine whether the safe harbor established by the Annunzio-Wylie Anti-Money Laundering Act provides absolute (versus qualified) immunity from claims that arise from the submission of a suspicious activity report (SAR). The petitioners were appealing a Louisiana state court holding, which the state appellate courts declined to review, that denied petitioners immunity under the Act after the CEO reported a bank president for possible suspicious activity. The bank president claimed that the petitioners lacked a good faith basis to report him and, therefore, could not receive absolute immunity. The petitioners argued that the First Circuit and the Second Circuit have held, based on the plain language of the Act, that financial institutions have absolute immunity from any cause of action relating to the submission of a SAR, while the Eleventh Circuit has held that the Act only grants qualified immunity. The Supreme Court declined to remedy the apparent circuit split.
In Parks v. MBNA America Bank, N.A., No 12-359, the Supreme Court denied review of a California Supreme Court decision that held that the National Bank Act preempts state requirements that certain disclosures accompany preprinted or “convenience checks” provided by a credit card issuer to its cardholders. The plaintiff filed suit on behalf of a putative class after he used such checks and was assessed finance charges that were greater than those that he would have been assessed had he used his credit card instead. He alleged that California law requires certain disclosures to be provided with the checks, including those related to convenience checks. In June, the California Supreme Court held the specific disclosure obligations imposed by the state law at issue, including precise language and placement of the disclosures, exceeded any federal law requirements and is preempted as an obstacle to the broad grant of power given to national banks by the NBA to conduct the business of banking.
On October 22, FinCEN issued advisory guidance to financial institutions for filing Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) on conduct related to third-party payment processors. The FinCEN guidance lists several potential red flags with regard to these payment processors, including (i) fraud, (ii) accounts at multiple financial institutions, (iii) money laundering, (iv) enhanced risk, (v) solicitation for business, and (vi) elevated rate of return of unauthorized debit transactions. To identify suspicious activity involving payment processors, FinCEN suggests that financial institutions review and update their anti-money laundering programs, monitor whether legal actions are pending against payment processors, and verify that payment processors have all required state licenses and registrations. In addition, financial institutions may be required to file SARs if they know or suspect that a payment processor has conducted a transaction involving funds derived from illegal activity, or where a payment processor has attempted to disguise funds derived from illegal activity. When completing SARs related to payment processors, FinCEN requests that financial institutions (i) check the appropriate box on the SAR form indicating the type of suspicious activity, and (ii) include the term “Payment Processor” in the narrative and the subject occupation portions of the SAR.
FinCEN Announces Public Hearing on Customer Due Diligence Proposal, Releases First Report on Real Estate Title and Escrow Industry SARs
On July 10, FinCEN announced the first in a series of public hearings to collect information related to its proposed rule on customer due diligence requirements for financial institutions. The public hearing, to be held July 31, 2012 at the Treasury Department, is designed to obtain input from the law enforcement and regulatory communities, as well as industry representatives.
On July 11, FinCEN released its first targeted study analyzing Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) involving the real estate and title escrow industry. As part of its efforts to better understand criminal risks impacting related those industries, FinCEN studied thousands of SARs involving title and escrow companies, often filed in connection with mortgage fraud. The FinCEN release notes that the agency does not currently require title and escrow companies themselves to file SARs, but many such companies have reported suspicious activities to FinCEN. The agency plans to use this and future studies to identify regulatory gaps and assess appropriate solutions to close those gaps and mitigate risk.