Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)

Enforcement Trends, Crypto, the AML Act — and More

We are very pleased to be moderating, once again, the Practising Law Institute’s 2022 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 17, 2022, starting at 9 a.m. This year’s conference will be both live and virtual — and it will be as informative, interesting and timely as always. 

On April 28, 2022, the Acting Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), Himamauli Das (“Das”), appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services to provide an update on FinCEN’s implementation of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AML Act”), including the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”).  You can find his prepared statement here.

In his opening remarks, Das walked through FinCEN’s activities for the year, and applauded the AML Act for putting FinCEN in a position to address today’s challenges, such as illicit use of digital assets, corruption, and kleptocrats hiding their ill-gotten gains in the U.S. financial system.  The speech focused on financial sanctions on Russia, FinCEN’s continued efforts to fight corruption, and effective AML programs.   Das also indicated that FinCEN is examining whether to issue proposed AML regulations for investment advisers – an effort that stalled in 2015.
Continue Reading  FinCEN Acting Director Das Focuses on Corruption and Transparency During U.S. House Committee on Financial Services Testimony

On April 28, 2022 the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) issued its Guidance on Use of Blockchain Analytics, a document directed to all virtual currency business entities that either have a NYDFS Bitlicense or are chartered as a limited purpose trust company under the New York Banking Law.  The Guidance emphasizes “the importance of blockchain analytics to effective policies, processes, and procedures, including, for example, those relating to customer due diligence, transaction monitoring, and sanctions screening.”

The NYDFS is stressing the role of blockchain analytics in anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance because “virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and Ether can be transferred peer-to-peer directly from one individual or entity to another pseudonymously, absent the use of a regulated third party (e.g., between non-custodial wallets, or self-hosted wallets that allow users to maintain control of their private keys). . . . [T]hese wallet addresses are typically pseudonymous, with nothing on the face of the transfer tying back to the originator, beneficiary, or underlying beneficial owners.”

Given the potential compliance challenges presented by such characteristics, the NYDFS wants virtual currency entities to leverage the fact that virtual currencies also enable provenance tracing because “the blockchain ledger’s immutability typically allows a historical view of a virtual currency transmission between wallet addresses, providing the opportunity for greater visibility into transaction lineage than is typically found with traditional, fiat funds transfers.”

The Guidance provides that, ultimately, all risk mitigation strategies must account for an entity’s business profile to assess risk across types of virtual currencies and effectively address the specific characteristics of any particular virtual currency involved.  If a virtual currency entity chooses to outsource its control functions to third-party service providers rather than use only internally developed blockchain analytics, it must have “clearly documented policies, processes, and procedures with regard to how the [third-party] blockchain analytics activity integrates into the [entity’s] overall control framework consistent with the [entity’s] risk profile.”
Continue Reading  NYDFS Stresses Use of Blockchain Analytics for AML Compliance by Virtual Currency Businesses

On April 14, 2022, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued an advisory on kleptocracy and foreign public corruption.  At a high level, the advisory stresses the importance of financial institutions focusing their efforts on detecting and targeting the proceeds of foreign public corruption. This advisory aligns with President Biden’s establishment of the fight against corruption as a core national security interest, as well as FinCEN’s identification of corruption as a national priority for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism.  The advisory seeks to provide financial institutions with typologies and potential indicators associated with kleptocracy and other forms of foreign public corruption, such as bribery, embezzlement, extortion, and the misappropriation of public assets.  The advisory further identifies 10 financial red flag indicators to assist financial institutions in detecting, preventing, and reporting suspicious transactions associated with kleptocracy and foreign public corruption.
Continue Reading  More from FinCEN to Financial Institutions on the Kleptocracy – With a Continued Focus on Russia

Case Highlights the Role of Correspondent Bank Accounts and Circumvention of AML Programs

Court Order Describes Seizure as a “Reckoning” for Atrocities in the Ukraine

On April 4, 2022, Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the government’s Application for Warrant to Seize Property Subject to Forfeiture, finding that there was probable cause to believe that the yacht Tango, a 255-foot luxury yacht allegedly owned by sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, was subject to forfeiture based on alleged violations of U.S. bank fraud, money laundering, and sanction statutes.  The Tango is located in a shipyard on the Spanish island of Mallorca, and the warrant and subsequent seizure by the United States and its allies was part of Task Force KleptoCapture, an interagency law enforcement task force designed to help deploy U.S. prosecutorial and law enforcement resources to identify sanctions evasion and related criminal conduct.

Sanctions were imposed on Vekselberg and the company he founded, the Renova Group, in April 2018 by the Treasury Department. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vekselberg was hit with new penalties by the U.S. government on March 11, 2022.  These sanctions were pursuant to various Executive Orders under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) imposed against persons responsible for or complicit in certain activities with respect to Ukraine.
Continue Reading  Russian Oligarch’s Yacht Subject to Forfeiture Based on Alleged Violations of Bank Fraud, Money Laundering, and U.S. Sanction Statutes

On April 5, 2022 the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) announced sanctions against “the world’s largest and most prominent darknet market, Hydra Market” and Garantex, a virtual currency exchange registered in Estonia but operating in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia.  The sanctions are part of a larger initiative targeting Russian cybercrime that spans across multiple federal departments—including the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, and Homeland Security Investigations—and across the globe—including international partners like the German Federal Criminal Police and Estonia’s Financial Intelligence Unit.  The sanctions follow September and November sanctions of SUEX OTC, S.R.O. and CHATEX, two virtual currency exchanges operated out of Moscow that allegedly facilitated transactions for ransomware actors.  SUEX was the first virtual currency exchange subject to OFAC sanctions (and the subject of a previous post).

While ostensibly focused on closing another avenue for ransomware purveyors to profit off of their wares, the sanctions may also cut off all types of cybercriminals who allegedly find “a haven” in Russia and used Hydra or Garantex.
Continue Reading  OFAC Designates “Hydra” –  the Largest Darknet Market – and Third Russian Virtual Currency Exchange

Sanctions involving Russia is a front-burner issue for all businesses, but particularly for financial institutions. As we previously blogged, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued on March 7 an alert calling for increased vigilance in the face of potential evasion of Russian sanctions. On March 16, FinCEN issued its second alert on the topic (the “Alert”), reiterating the need for increased vigilance and assisting financial institutions in detecting suspicious transactions involving high-value assets to evade sanctions.

We discuss here the Alert, which provides guidance to financial institutions on how to identify suspicious transactions relating to the use of certain high-value assets by Russian elites, their family members and their “proxies.” The Alert reminds financial institutions of the importance of quickly identifying suspicious activity related to the disposition of sanctioned Russian assets. The Alert also highlights the international and domestic task forces that were formed to effectuate the sanctions laws we describe below, emphasizing the need for cross-agency collaboration and information sharing to achieve the common goal of sanctioning Russia’s power players.  However, and as we discuss, the Alert unfortunately offers no guidance on how “proxies” should be identified or defined.
Continue Reading  Russian Sanctions Redux: FinCEN Issues Guidance on Suspicious Transactions and Evasion Using High-Value Assets

On March 7, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued an alert “advising all financial institutions to be vigilant against potential efforts to evade the expansive sanctions and other U.S.-imposed restrictions implemented against potential efforts to evade the expansive sanctions and other U.S.-imposed restrictions implemented in connection with the Russian Federation’s further invasion of Ukraine.”  The press release is here.  The alert itself is here.
Continue Reading  Russian Sanctions:  FinCEN Provides Red Flags for Potential Evasion Attempts

On October 15, 2021, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a financial trend analysis on ransomware relating to Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) filed in the first half of this year (“Analysis”).  According to the Analysis, U.S. banks and financial institutions reported $590 million in suspected ransomware payments in SARs filed between January and June 2021, more than the total for all of 2020.  FinCEN found that ransomware payments are often made using virtual currency, such as Bitcoin (“BTC”).  The Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) also released guidance in tandem with the FinCEN Analysis, addressing how the virtual currency industry can address sanctions-related risks.

Ransomware appears to be top-of-mind at the U.S. Treasury, as we have blogged.  FinCEN’s Analysis and OFAC’s guidance came quickly on the heels of OFAC issuing on September 21 a six-page Updated Advisory on Potential Sanctions Risks for Facilitating Ransomware Payments, which states that OFAC will consider self-reporting, cooperation with the government and strong cybersecurity measures to be mitigating factors in any contemplated enforcement action against a ransomware victim that halts an attack by making the demanded payment to attackers who were sanctioned or otherwise had a sanctions nexus.  Also on September 21, 2021, OFAC issued its first sanctions designation against a virtual currency exchange by designating the virtual currency exchange “for its part in facilitating financial transactions for ransomware variants.”
Continue Reading  FinCEN Reports Spiraling SARs Relating to Ransomware

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