levya@ballardspahr.com | 215.864.9278 | view full bio

Alexa focuses her practice on white collar defense and consumer financial services, including the defense of financial institutions accused of having enabled alleged fraud schemes perpetrated by former customers against investors, consumers, and others. Alexa has published on the topic of crimes against humanity and genocide.

Second Post in a Two-Part Series on Recent OFAC Designations

As we blogged yesterday, OFAC has been busy.  Right before OFAC designated the virtual currency exchange SUEX for allegedly facilitating ransomware payments,  OFAC announced another significant but more traditional action on September 17, 2021 by designating members of a network of Lebanon and Kuwait-based

OFAC Updates Advisory on Enforcement Risks Relating to Agreeing to Pay Ransomware

First Post in a Two-Part Series on Recent OFAC Designations

On September 21, 2021 OFAC issued its first sanctions designation against a virtual currency exchange by designating the virtual currency exchange, SUEX OTC, S.R.O. (SUEX) “for its part in facilitating financial transactions for ransomware variants.”  Although this is a unique development, the broader and more important issue for any financial institution or company facing a ransomware attack is the continuing problem encapsulated in OFAC’s six-page Updated Advisory on Potential Sanctions Risks for Facilitating Ransomware Payments, which OFAC released in conjunction with the announcement of the SUEX designation.  The Updated Advisory illustrates a “Catch 22” scenario, in which a victim that halts a ransomware attack by making the demanded payment then may find itself under scrutiny from OFAC on a strict-liability basis if it turns out that the attackers were sanctioned or otherwise had a sanctions nexus.  The Updated Advisory states that OFAC will consider self-reporting, cooperation with the government and strong cybersecurity measures to be mitigating factors in any contemplated enforcement action.

OFAC has been busy.  Tomorrow, we will blog on a more traditional action announced by OFAC right before the SUEX designation:  OFAC’s designation of members of a network of financial conduits funding Hizballah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force.  This designation is notable for the targets’ alleged use of gold as a vehicle to launder illicit funds through front companies.
Continue Reading OFAC Targets Virtual Currency Exchange For Ransomware Attack

Third Post in a Series on the FATF Plenary Outcomes

This blog is the third post on the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) fourth Plenary, an event where delegates were invited from around the world to (virtually) meet and discuss a wide range of global financial crimes and ongoing risk areas.  Among the several strategic initiatives identified by FATF was Ethnic or Race Motivated Terrorist Financing (“EoRMTF”), on which FATF issued a report detailing its implications for anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) (the “Report”).

Similar to FATF’s first-time report regarding environmental crime and money laundering, the Report marks the first time FATF has looked at the financing of ethnically or racially motivated terrorism. The Report highlights how very difficult it can be to identify and trace EoRMTF, including because of the following factors: the major role of so-called “lone wolf” actors; competing legal regimes in different countries; growing transnational links between extreme right wing (“ERW”) groups; limited information on ERW groups; and the fact that some ERW groups are not considered illegal or have not been listed as groups to monitor.  The Report also notes the irony that ERW groups often use legal – not illicit – funds to promote their efforts, and that “ERW groups appear to be less concerned with concealing their transactions than in other forms of [terrorist financing]” – but that “many jurisdictions also reported that ERW actors are becoming increasing operationally sophisticated in how they move [and conceal] their funds.”
Continue Reading FATF Report Stresses Challenges in Combatting Ethnically- and Racially-Motivated Terrorism

Today we are very pleased to welcome guest blogger Tess Davis, who is the Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition. Tess, a lawyer and archaeologist by training, oversees the organization’s work to fight cultural racketeering worldwide, as well as its award-winning think tank in Washington. She has been a legal consultant for the U.S. and foreign governments and works with both the art world and law enforcement to keep looted antiquities off the market. She writes and speaks widely on these issues — having been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Foreign Policy, and top scholarly journals — and featured in documentaries in America and Europe. She teaches cultural heritage law at Johns Hopkins University, and is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.  In 2015, the Royal Government of Cambodia knighted Tess for her work to recover the country’s plundered treasures, awarding her the rank of Commander in the Royal Order of the Sahametrei.

We reached out to Tess because Congress passed the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”) on January 1, 2021.  This sprawling legislation in part applies the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to antiquities dealers by defining them as “financial institutions” – and suggests that the BSA later may apply to the art trade as well by requiring a study on money laundering and the art trade.  We have blogged repeatedly on the fascinating intersection between the art and antiquities industry and BSA/AML compliance and money laundering concerns.  This also is a topic that has garnered significant media interest, including in a recent article in the New York Times.  For ease of reference, the AMLA’s requirements for factors to be considered for forthcoming regulations on the antiquities trade, and for the factors relevant to the study on the art trade, are described here.

The Antiquities Coalition convened the Financial Crimes Task Force; their materials, including a detailed joint report, Reframing U.S. Policy on the Art Market: Recommendations for Combating Financial Crimes, are available here.  Antiquities, art and money laundering also was the subject of a panel at PLI’s May 2021 Anti-Money Laundering Conference, at which Tess was a panelist.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q&A session, in which Tess responds to questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about potential AML regulations regarding the antiquities and art markets. We hope you enjoy this discussion on this important topic. – Peter Hardy and Alex Levy
Continue Reading Congress Regulates the Antiquities Market – and Perhaps the Art Market – for AML Compliance:  A Guest Blog.

Case Highlights Confidentiality of BSA Reporting and Continued Focus on Real Estate as Money Laundering Tool

The Northern District of California granted summary judgment to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) in a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) case pertaining to an attempt by a group of investigative journalists to obtain information reported to FinCEN on the beneficial owners of high-end real estate.  This case clearly indicates that the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) will continue to prevent efforts by journalists to seek, via FOIA, sensitive and protected information reported to FinCEN.  Of course, and as the world has witnessed, journalists still can turn to leaks and data hacks to obtain and distribute such information.  This case also reminds us that the use of real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering remains a hot topic not only for regulators and enforcement personnel, but also for journalists and watchdog groups.

In The Center for Investigative Reporting, et al. v. United States Department of the Treasury, the Court held that FinCEN was not required to produce documents indicating the “real human owners” of residential real estate purchased with cash that had been requested by The Center for Investigative Reporting (“CIR”).  The Court’s ruling – affirming the confidentiality protections that are critical to the effectiveness of financial institution reporting under BSA – comes at pivotal moment, as journalistic agencies such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) and BuzzFeed News reported less than six months ago on leaked documents referred to as the “FinCEN Files,” describing alleged transactions valued at over $2 trillion U.S. dollars and reported by financial institutions to FinCEN through Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”). Under the BSA, it is illegal to reveal the decision to file or not file a SAR to the subject of the SAR.  The ICIJ also played a key role in the release of the notorious Panama Papers, which detailed an alleged web of international money laundering and tax evasion obtained through a massive data leak.
Continue Reading Investigative Journalists Lose FOIA Bid to Obtain GTO Info Reported to FinCEN

Covered Companies Must Report Beneficial Ownership to National Database Upon Incorporation

First Blog Post in an Extended Series on Legislative Changes to BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

Change is upon us.  The U.S. House and Senate have passed – over a Presidential veto – the National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”), a massive annual defense spending bill.  As we have blogged, this bill, now law, contains historic changes to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), coupled with other changes relating to money laundering, anti-money laundering (“AML”), counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) and protecting the U.S. financial system against illicit foreign actors. This sweeping legislation will affect financial institutions, their clients, and law enforcement and regulators for many years.  This will be the first post of many on these important legislative changes, which should produce related regulatory pronouncements throughout 2021.

Today, we will focus on the enactment that has received the most attention:  the NDAA’s adoption of the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”) and its requirements for covered legal entities to report their beneficial owners at the time of their creation to a database accessible by U.S. and foreign law enforcement and regulators, and to U.S. financial institutions seeking to comply with their own AML compliance obligations.  The issue of beneficial ownership and the misuse of shell corporations has been at the heart of global AML regulation and enforcement for many years.  This legislation will be held out as a partial but important response to the continuing critiques by the international community of the United States as a haven for money laundering and tax evasion, often due to the perception that U.S. and state laws on beneficial ownership reporting are lax.

Beyond “just” the CTA, the breadth of the BSA/AML legislation is substantial. We have discussed BSA/AML reform for years, and many of the reforms (acknowledging that the word “reform” often involves a value judgment, and whether a particular change represents “reform” is typically in the eye of the beholder) that have been repeatedly bandied about by Congress, industry, think tanks and law enforcement are incorporated into this legislation, or at least referenced as topics for further study and follow-up.  We therefore will be blogging repeatedly on the many and various components of this legislation, which implicates a broad array of key issues: BSA/AML examination priorities; attempting to modernize the BSA regulatory regime, including by improving feedback by the government on the usefulness of SAR reporting; potential “no action” letters by FinCEN; requiring process-related studies tied to the effectiveness and costs of certain BSA requirements, including current SAR and CTR reporting; increased penalties under the BSA for repeat offenders; greater information sharing among industry and the government; enhancing the ability of the government to investigate the use of correspondent bank accounts; cyber security issues; focusing on trade-based money laundering; adding a whistleblower provision to the BSA; and including dealers in antiquities to the definition of “financial institutions” covered by the BSA.
Continue Reading U.S. Passes Historic BSA/AML Legislative Change

Farewell to 2020.  Although it was an extremely difficult year, let’s still look back — because 2020 was yet another busy year in the world of money laundering and BSA/AML compliance.

We are highlighting 12 of our most-read blog posts from 2020, which address many of the key issues we’ve examined during the past year

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recently published a report titled Virtual Assets: Red Flag Indicators of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing. The report discusses a number of red flag indicators of suspicious virtual asset (VA) activities identified “through more than one hundred case studies collected since 2017 from across the FATF Global Network, literature reviews, and open source research.” The purpose of the report is to help financial institutions (FIs), designated non-financial businesses and professions (DNFBPs), and virtual asset service providers (VASPs) to create a “risk-based approach to their Customer Due Diligence (CDD) requirements.”

The report focuses on the following six categories of red flag indicators: those (1) related to transactions, (2) related to transaction patterns, (3) related to anonymity, (4) about senders or recipients, (5) in the source of funds or wealth, and (6) related to geographical risks.

When discussing red flags relating to transactions, FATF suggests that the size and frequency of transactions can be a good indicator of suspicious activity. For example, making multiple high-value transactions in short succession (i.e. within a 24-hour period) or in a staggered and regular pattern, with no further transactions during a long period afterwards. With regard to transaction patterns, FATF notes that large initial deposits with new users or transactions involving multiple accounts should also raise suspicion.
Continue Reading FATF Identifies Red Flags for Virtual Assets and Money Laundering