Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

Travel These Days

Kenneth Blanco, Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), recently provided remarks about FinCEN’s “Travel Rule” at the first truly-virtual Consensus Blockchain Conference. The Travel Rule, which became effective in 1996, requires money services businesses (“MSBs”) – including cryptocurrency exchanges – to maintain identifying information on all parties in fund transfers of over $3,000 between financial institutions. As we discuss below, this principle creates real-world practical problems in the digital currency industry, in which it is not necessarily easy to obtain such information, unlike the traditional banking industry.

During his remarks, Director Blanco applauded the Financial Action Task Force’s (“FATF”) guidance issued last June, about which we have blogged here, instructing its 180 international member governments to similarly demand that virtual asset service providers (“VASPs”) collect “accurate originator information and required beneficiary information” on transactions of $1,000 or more. FATF’s pronouncement sent some shockwaves through the digital currency industry.

Notably, Director Blanco also lauded the efforts of cross-sector organizations and working groups to develop international standards and solutions to aid compliance with the Travel Rule. He urged for continued cooperation between FinCEN and the virtual currency industry to effectively implement Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) measures consistent with the Travel Rule.
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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.” 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.
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Recent DOJ Forfeiture Action Against High-End Real Estate in Notorious Corruption Scheme Underscores Issues 

We are pleased to be presenting on Money Laundering and the Real Estate Industry on May 20 before the Real Estate Services Providers Council (RESPRO), a national non-profit trade association representing businesses before federal and state policy makers, and

As expected, on May 8, 2020, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) reissued its Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) requiring U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind legal entities used in purchases of residential real estate performed without a bank loan or similar form of external financing.  The monetary threshold remains at $300,000,

Some Commentary on the Unfortunate Relationship Between Crisis and Fraud

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) released today an update (“Update”) on its March 16, 2020 COVID-19 Notice, on which we previously blogged, 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.” Further, the Update states that “FinCEN is committed to promoting the success of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), including the need to facilitate expeditious disbursal of CARES Act funds.”  This post will summarize briefly the Update, and make a few high-level comments.

The COVID-19 pandemic — pernicious, unpredictable and continually evolving — resists facile pronouncements.  With that caveat, it is rational to predict that many financial institutions subject to the BSA will face significant issues in the very near future 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 in this age of “social distancing” and enforced working remotely to maintain an adequate amount of staff and degree of communication needed to catch and report suspicious activity, among other obligations under the BSA.  Stated otherwise, we are entering a time of maximum fraud and a reduced capacity to stand guard.

Further, as the pandemic continues and then recedes, the previously existing fraud schemes will come to light — just like during the financial crisis of 2008, when the Bernie Madoffs of the world were exposed — because desperate investors will be demanding their cash back, and some soon will discover that their money actually was stolen a while ago.  Investigations, prosecutions and litigations will ensue.

Turning to the Update by FinCEN, we summarize here greatly.  In our view, the Update provides some generally helpful information, but little in the way of concrete guidance.
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The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) just issued a release, entitled “The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Encourages Financial Institutions to Communicate Concerns Related to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and to Remain Alert to Related Illicit Financial Activity.”  Given the topic and the simplicity of the release, this post merely provides the release in

Report Focuses on Anonymity, Real Estate Transactions and Complicit Lawyers

Report Also Signals Upcoming AML Regulation for Certain Niche Institutions

Second Post in a Two-Post Series

In its 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing (“2020 Strategy”), the U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) has laid out its AML and money laundering enforcement priorities. Last week, we blogged about the 2020 Strategy and focused on the document’s findings and recommendations for increased transparency into beneficial ownership; strengthening international regulation and coordination, and modernization of the BSA/AML regime in regards to technological innovation.

Here, we focus on the 2020 Strategy as it relates to combating money laundering relating to real estate transactions and gatekeeper professions in general, such as lawyers, real estate professionals and other financial professionals, including broker dealers. Importantly, the 2020 Strategy also notes that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) is working on a proposed regulation which would extend AML obligations for banks and other financial institutions not subject to a federal functional regulator; there are an estimated 669 such institutions in the U.S.
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First in a Two-Post Series

The U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) has issued its 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing (“2020 Strategy”). This document sets forth the key priorities of the U.S. government regarding enforcement of the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”), and the furthering of the government’s Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) goals in general. It is lengthy document addressing numerous issues – albeit in a relatively high-level fashion in regards to any specific issue.

In this post, we will summarize the findings and recommendations of the 2020 Strategy, and will highlight some topics this blog has followed closely – including calls for: increased transparency into beneficial ownership; strengthening international regulation and coordination, and modernization of the AML/BSA regime. Our next post will focus on the 2020 Strategy as it relates to combating money laundering relating to real estate transactions and “gatekeeper” professions, such as lawyers, real estate professionals and other financial professionals, including broker-dealers.

The 2020 Strategy also focuses on several other important issues which we will not discuss in this limited blog series, but on which we certainly have blogged before, including the role of money laundering in international trade, casinos, money services businesses and digital assets.
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Last Thursday, FinCEN Deputy Director Jamal El-Hindi appeared at the 20th annual Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Financial Crimes Conference hosted by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) in New York City. His prepared remarks covered three main topics at the intersection of the securities industry and FinCEN’s enforcement goals: (i) AML compliance trends and current challenges; (ii) the value of Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) filing data; and (iii) the current regulatory landscape.

El-Hindi not surprisingly stressed transparency and information sharing, the value of BSA reporting data, and the need for legislation regarding the collection of beneficial ownership at the corporate formation stage. El-Hindi also suggested – perhaps without the complete agreement of his audience – that regulators tend to under-regulate, rather than over-regulate. He stated: “But in an area such as ours where we have developed a strong partnership with industry and where we believe that you are just as vested in our mission to thwart bad actors as we are, it is important for us to use our authorities fully.”

His remarks are particularly relevant given the 2020 Examination Priorities recently issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), which states that the OCIE will prioritize examining broker-dealers and investment companies “for compliance with their AML obligations in order to assess, among other things, whether firms have established appropriate customer identification programs and whether they are satisfying their SAR filing obligations, conducting due diligence on customers, complying with beneficial ownership requirements, and conducting robust and timely independent tests of their AML programs.”
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Note to Government Personnel: Don’t Disclose SARs

This week, major developments unfolded in the cases against two former federal government employees for their respective roles in disclosing Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).

Historically, prosecutions pertaining to improper SAR disclosures have been supremely rare, so the fact that two court hearings involving this issue occurred in a single week is particularly notable. Both involve defendants allegedly acting on their own perceived sense of duty – perceptions which ran afoul of the law.

First, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a former senior advisor at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiring to unlawfully disclose SARs related to Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, Maria Butina, Prevezon Alexander, and the Russian Embassy to a reporter. Second, John C. Fry, a former employee of the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), was sentenced to five years of supervised probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine after similarly pleading guilty to his role in disclosing SARs to embattled attorney Michael Avenatti that related to likewise-embattled attorney Michael Cohen. Both prosecutions underscore the seriousness with which federal authorities view such disclosures. Likewise, they reflect that potentially subjective good intentions – of course – still don’t excuse violations of the carefully-crafted prohibitions in the BSA against the disclosure of SARs.


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