Advisory Suggests that COVID-19 Pandemic Exacerbates Conditions Contributing to Trafficking

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) recently issued an Advisory on Identifying and Reporting Human Trafficking and Related Activity (“Advisory”). This Advisory supplements FinCEN’s 2014 Guidance on Recognizing Activity that May be Associated with Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking – Financial Red Flags (“2014 Advisory”).

According to the Advisory, human trafficking is one of the most profitable and violent forms of international crime, generating an estimated $150 billion worldwide per year. A variety of industries within the United States are susceptible to human trafficking—hospitality, agricultural, janitorial services, construction, restaurants, care for persons with disabilities, salon services, massage parlors, retail, fairs and carnivals, peddling and begging, child care, domestic work, and drug smuggling and distribution.

FinCEN further indicates that “[t]he global COVID-19 pandemic can exacerbate the conditions that contribute to human trafficking, as the support structures for potential victims collapse, and traffickers target those most impacted and vulnerable.” In light of changing circumstances, the Advisory lists four additional typologies and 20 new red flags to help assist in identifying and reporting human trafficking – many of which pertain to the use of currency, an increasingly rare phenomenon in today’s digital economy. The Advisory urges financial institutions, including customer-facing staff that may be in contact with victims of human trafficking, to educate themselves on current methodologies used by traffickers and facilitators. The most practical aspects of the Advisory appear to be those that highlight the red flags which may arise with personal interactions between bank staff and customers who in fact are engaging in trafficking.
Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Advisory on Human Trafficking

On October 13, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a COVID-19-related Advisory “to alert financial institutions to unemployment insurance (“UI”) fraud observed during the COVID-19 pandemic.” It is the fourth in a series of Advisories related to financial crimes arising from the pandemic (we covered previous Advisories on medical scams, imposter and money

Can BSA/AML Requirements Lead to Deemed Knowledge of Borrower Fraud?

The first two weeks of August brought a milestone of sorts in the ongoing recovery from the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) ended its enrollment period on August 8, 2020 and the window for borrowers to apply to have their PPP loans forgiven opened on August 10, 2020.

The PPP was a centerpiece of the over $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) that, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published on July 22, 2020 had to that point saved between 1.4 and 3.2 million jobs. Less formally observed but possibly more widely agreed, the PPP caused at least as many headaches with its rocky initial rollout and the ongoing uncertainty over applicable loan forgiveness standards. But, whereas implementing the PPP poses challenges to lenders now, due to the rampant fraud in the program (which, along with all COVID-19-related enforcement actions and policy statements, we track here) and its funding mechanics, it creates substantial downstream enforcement risk through the False Claims Act (“FCA”) for participating financial institutions.

Numerous districts already have charged borrowers with PPP-related fraud. To date, cases generally involve one of these scenarios:

  • Borrowers submitted fraudulent loan applications and supporting documents to seek PPP funds for businesses that either already had failed pre-pandemic or that they did not actually own.
  • Borrowers lied about amount, or even existence, of employees and payroll. These schemes involve inflated numbers of employees for companies, or even completely fake companies.
  • Borrowers certified that they would use loan funds to support payroll expenses or other allowable expenses, but in fact used all or most loan funds to pay personal and non-business expenses.

The prosecutions to date have all centered on relatively obvious fraud by borrowers, not lenders. But, wider-reaching investigations are occurring and though we are very much at the beginning of the enforcement phase, the magnitude of fraud in these programs is coming into focus. On September 1, 2020, the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a preliminary analysis finding, among other things, over $1 billion in fraudulent PPP loans were issued and identifying red flags with respect to an additional $2.98 billion in loans made to 11,000 borrowers.

And, as we discuss, the anti-money laundering (“AML”) requirements of lenders imposed under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) may expose lenders to greater risk under the FCA, which can impose civil liability for the reduced mental state of reckless disregard. Many lenders have extended PPP loans to previously-existing customers. This is a rational business decision, given typically lower business risks presented by existing customers and lower compliance costs, because existing customers do not need to provide beneficial ownership information under the Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) rule of the BSA. However, because lenders also are required under the BSA to understand to a degree the historical and current activities of its customers, lenders may be deemed in future FCA actions to have “known” about red flags generated by fraudulent borrowers because of information obtained by the lenders properly executing their AML programs. That is, compliance with the BSA ironically may generate evidence for downstream FCA enforcement actions based on deemed “knowledge” by the lender of borrower malfeasance. This irony may be exacerbated by any disconnect in real time between the AML compliance staff at financial institutions and the front-line business people extending loans, particularly given the incredible speed with which institutions have extended PPP loans, at the government’s urging.

The point here is not that PPP lenders will face direct regulatory liability for alleged BSA/AML failures – although they may. Rather, the point is that PPP lenders may face enhanced FCA liability due to borrower information obtained through an entirely functional BSA/AML program. This phenomenon highlights the need for the “front” and “back” offices at lenders to communicate.
Continue Reading PPP Lenders and Fraudulent Borrowers: False Claims Act Liability and AML Risk

AML Standards May Exist in Theory, But Often are Not Enforced in Practice

Today we are very pleased to welcome, once again, guest bloggers Gretta Fenner and Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska of the Basel Institute on Governance (“Basel Institute”). The Basel Institute recently issued its Basel AML Index for 2020. Ms. Fenner and Dr. Boguslavska guest blogged for Money Laundering Watch last year on this data-rich and fascinating annual Index, which is one of several online tools developed by the Basel Institute to help both public- and private-sector practitioners tackle financial crime. The Index is a research-based ranking that assesses countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing.

Established in 2003, the Basel Institute is a not-for-profit Swiss foundation dedicated to working with public and private partners around the world to prevent and combat corruption, and is an Associated Institute of the University of Basel. The Basel Institute’s work involves action, advice and research on issues including anti-corruption collective action, asset recovery, corporate governance and compliance, and more.

Gretta Fenner is the Managing Director of the Basel Institute, where she also holds the position of Director of the Institute’s International Centre for Asset Recovery. She is a political scientist by training and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Otto-Suhr-Institute at the Free University Berlin, Germany, and the Paris Institute for Political Science (Sciences Po), France. She also holds an MBA from the Curtin University Graduate School of Business, Australia.

Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska is Project Manager for the Basel AML Index at the Basel Institute. A political scientist, she holds a PhD in Political Science from the National Academy of Science in Ukraine, a master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich as well as a master’s degree in Political Science from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. Before joining the Basel Institute, Dr. Boguslavska worked at Chatham House in London as an Academy Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Ms. Fenner and Dr. Boguslavska respond to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Basel AML Index 2020. We hope you enjoy this discussion of global money laundering risks — which addresses AML standards vs. their actual implementation, human trafficking, AML vulnerabilities in the U.S., the effects of covid-19, and more. –Peter Hardy
Continue Reading The Basel AML Index 2020: Across the Globe, Weak Oversight and Dormant Enforcement Systems. A Guest Blog.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) just issued yet another Advisory regarding fraud threats faced by financial institutions, as exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This Advisory pertains to “Cybercrime and Cyber-Enabled Crime Exploiting the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic.” We consistently have blogged on FinCEN’s pronouncements on the enhanced fraud risks created by COVID-19.

A Guest Blog by Professor Moyara Ruehsen

Today we are very pleased to welcome guest blogger Moyara Ruehsen, PhD, CAMS, CFCS, who is  an Associate Professor and Director of the Financial Crime Management Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. For more than 20 years, Professor Ruehsen has taught financial crime-related courses on a variety of topics including money laundering, trade-based financial crime, corruption, proliferation financing, terrorist financing and cyber-enabled financial crime.  She has published articles and book chapters on a variety of topics related to threat finance and is a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist and a Certified Financial Crime Specialist. Professor Ruehsen also consults for the U.S. government, multilateral organizations and the private sector. She served for several years on the Editorial Advisory Board of Money Laundering Alert, and the Middle East Task Force of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists, or ACAMS.

For an extremely entertaining and illuminating discussion by Professor Ruehsen of how popular TV and movies get money laundering right (and wrong), see here.

This blog post takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Professor Ruehsen responds to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the critical topic of cyber-enabled financial crime. We hope you enjoy this discussion, which addresses how cyber-enabled financial crime threatens financial institutions and their customers. –Peter Hardy
Continue Reading Cyber-Enabled Financial Crime and Money Laundering

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) just issued another Advisory pertaining to two consumer fraud schemes exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This Advisory focuses on “imposter schemes” and “money mule schemes, ”which we discuss below.

This most recent Advisory is the latest in a string of pronouncements relating to the pandemic by FinCEN, which has stated that it regularly will issue such documents. As we have blogged, FinCEN issued an Advisory on May 18 regarding medical scams related to the pandemic, and issued a companion Notice that “provides detailed filing instructions for financial institutions, which will serve as a reference for future COVID-19 advisories.” On April 3, 2020, FinCEN also updated its March 16, 2020 COVID-19 Notice in order to assist “financial institutions in complying with their Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and announc[ing] a direct contact mechanism for urgent COVID-19-related issues.”

The most recent Advisory again provides a list of potential red flags that FinCEN believes that financial institutions should be monitoring for, in order to detect, prevent, and report such suspicious activity. As we previously have commented: although such lists can be helpful to financial institutions, they ultimately may impose de facto heightened due diligence requirements. The risk is that, further in time, after memories of the stressors currently imposed by COVID-19 have faded, some regulators may focus only on perceived historical BSA/AML compliance failures and will invoke these lists not merely as efforts by FinCEN to assist financial institutions in deterring crime, but as instances in which FinCEN was putting financial institutions on notice.

Further, the most recent Advisory suffers from the fact that its list of red flags for imposter schemes is best directed at consumers themselves, rather than at financial institutions offering services to consumers: many of the red flags pertain to anomalies in the communications sent directly by fraudsters to targeted consumer victims – information that financial institutions rarely possess.
Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Advisory on COVID-19 and Imposter and Money Mule Schemes

On May 18, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued an Advisory “to alert financial institutions to rising medical scams related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This [A]dvisory contains red flags, descriptions of COVID-19 related medical scams, and information on reporting suspicious activity.” According to FinCEN, “[t]his is the first of several advisories FinCEN intends to issue concerning financial crimes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” A Spanish-language version of the Advisory is here.  FinCEN also issued a companion Notice to the Advisory that “provides detailed filing instructions for financial institutions, which will serve as a reference for future COVID-19 advisories.”

Although FinCEN has made clear that future advisories will follow, the May 18 Advisory and Notice are themselves the latest in a string of prior pronouncements by FinCEN relating to the global pandemic. As we have blogged, FinCEN updated its March 16, 2020 COVID-19 Notice for the stated reason of assisting “financial institutions in complying with their Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and announc[ing] a direct contact mechanism for urgent COVID-19-related issues.” FinCEN, of course, is not the only regulatory body addressing Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) issues implicated by COVID-19. As we also have blogged, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) recently issued a paper entitled “Covid-19-Related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing – Risk and Policy Responses” This FATF Paper follows up on the April 1, 2020 statement issued by FATF’s President on COVID-19 and measures to combat illicit financing.

The Advisory is surprisingly specific when describing the possible scams and potential red flags that FinCEN believes that financial institutions should be monitoring for in order to detect, prevent, and report such suspicious activity. In addition to providing a list of red flags, the Advisory provides specific case studies demonstrating the real-world concerns surrounding these scams. Although this level of detail is helpful to financial institutions when integrating the Advisory into their own programs, it also seems to impose potential heightened due diligence requirements on financial institutions when dealing with companies engaged in providing medical services and supplies.
Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Advisory on Medical Scams Relating to COVID-19

On May 4, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) issued a paper entitled “Covid-19-Related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing – Risk and Policy Responses (“Paper”). This Paper follows up on the April 1, 2020 statement issued by FATF’s President on COVID-19 and measures to combat illicit financing, on which we previously blogged. As we also have blogged, the COVID-19 pandemic will cause many financial institutions to face significant Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) issues because of the unfortunate confluence of increased fraud schemes seeking to capitalize on the pandemic, coupled with the fact that many BSA/AML compliance teams will be straining to maintain an adequate amount of staff and degree of communication.
Continue Reading FATF Issues Paper on COVID-19 Enhanced AML and Fraud Risks

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm for money laundering and fraud. As we have blogged, financial institutions subject to the Bank Secrecy Act are facing increased incidents of fraud and must catch and report suspicious or illegal activity while compliance teams face potentially reduced staff and are trying to work remotely. The