As we have repeatedly blogged, concerns about perceived anti-money laundering (“AML”) risks in the real estate industry are rising globally.  Consistent with this concern, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) has updated its AML guidance for the real estate sector in a document entitled “Guidance for a Risk-Based Approach: Real Estate Sector,” (“FATF Guidance” or “the Updated Guidance”).  The FATF Guidance urges a variety of players in the real estate industry to adopt a risk-based approach (“RBA”) to mitigate AML risks and sets forth some high-level recommendations.  The Updated Guidance notably coincides with FinCEN’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to impose reporting and perhaps other requirements under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) for persons involved in real estate transactions to collect, report, and retain information, and the  recent extension of Geographic Targeting Orders for U.S. title insurance companies.

The FATF Guidance appears to be driven, at least in part, by FATF assessments showing that the real estate sector has high AML risks, which industry players often fail to appreciate and/or mitigate.  The Updated Guidance explains how various industry players can use an RBA to mitigate those risks.  It identifies sector-specific risks, sets forth strategies for assessing and managing those risks, and describes challenges the industry faces in doing so.  The FATF also offers specific guidance for “private sector players” and “supervisors” (e.g., countries and self-regulatory boards) for going forward.  The Updated Guidance includes tools, case studies, and examples of both private sector and supervisory practices to show real estate supervisors and practitioners how to implement FATF standards in an adequate, risk-based and effective manner.

The FATF is an inter-governmental policymaking body dedicated to creating AML standards and promoting effective measures to combat money laundering (“ML”) and terrorist financing (“TF”).  The FATF issued the Updated Guidance with input from the private sector, including from a public consultation with thirteen private-sector representatives (including from sector specific professional associations, the legal profession, FinTech providers, and non-profit organizations) in March and April 2022.  This consultation urged FinCEN, among other things, to provide greater clarity in the Updated Guidance regarding its applicability to the real estate sector and related professions (such as lawyers, notaries, and financial institutions) and extend FATF recommendations to broader real estate activities (such as property development and leasing).

Continue Reading  FATF Updates Risk-Based Approach Guidance for the Real Estate Sector

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

FinCEN announced yesterday that, once again, it is extending the Geographic Targeting Order, or GTO, which requires U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind so-called “shell companies” used in purchases of residential real estate not involving a mortgage.  FinCEN also has expanded slightly the reach of the GTOs.

The new GTO is

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

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

But AML Concerns Linger As To “High End” Art and NFTs

On February 4, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury published a study (the “Study”) on the facilitation of money laundering (“ML”) and terrorist financing (“TF”) through the trade in works of art.  The study was commissioned as a result of Section 6110(c) of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (the “Act”), which required Treasury to examine art market participants and sectors of the art market that may present ML/TF risks to the U.S. financial system, and examine what steps regulators might take to mitigate these risks.

According to the press release accompanying the Study, “[s]everal qualities inherent to high-value art – the way it is bought and sold and certain market participants – may make the high-value art market attractive for money laundering by criminals. These include the high dollar value of transactions, transportability of goods, a longstanding culture of privacy and use of intermediaries (e.g., shell companies and art advisors), and the increasing use of high-value art as an investment class.”  As we will discuss, the Study proposes four scenarios—two regulatory and two nonregulatory—to mitigate money laundering risks in the art industry. Ultimately, however, the Study concludes that, “[w]eighed against other sectors that pose ML/TF risks, . . . the art market should not be an immediate focus for the imposition of comprehensive AML/CFT requirements.” (emphasis added).  Accordingly, any ML/TF regulation of the art trade will not happen soon.

Ironically, dealers in antiquities – an industry dwarfed by the size of the global art market – are not so lucky, because Congress already has subjected them to anti-money laundering (“AML”) duties.  As we blogged, the Act amended the Bank Secrecy Act’s (“BSA”) definition of “financial institution” to include those “engaged in the trade of antiquities, including an advisor, consultant, or any other person who engages as a business in the solicitation or the sale of antiquities, subject to regulations prescribed by the [Treasury] Secretary.”  The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) still must issue implementing regulations for antiquities dealers.
Continue Reading  Treasury Report:  No Immediate Need for BSA Regulations for the Art Industry

We are pleased to offer the latest episode in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Monitor Podcast series — a weekly podcast focusing on the consumer finance issues that matter most, from new product development and emerging technologies to regulatory compliance and enforcement and the ramifications of private litigation.

In this episode, we discuss the historic changes

On January 13, 2022, Himamauli “Him” Das, the Acting Director of FinCEN, virtually addressed the Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference hosted by the American Bankers Association and the American Bar Association.  In his speech, Mr. Das highlighted the transformation and modernization of the anti-money laundering/counter-terrorist financing (“AML/CFT”) regulatory framework from a tool updated in the wake of September 11, 2001 to combat money flows to terrorist organizations, to an instrument designed to address the more complex current and future challenges presented by digital assets and strategic corruption.

Acting on the authority accorded FinCEN by the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (the “AML Act”), FinCEN has been in the process of reorganizing and upscaling several of its divisions in order to meet increased obligations. New divisions include the Global Investigations Division, the Strategic Operations Division and the Enforcement and Compliance Division, which together work to combine resources against bad actors, share information, and act to resolve investigations across the financial sector. Mr. Das focused on three additional areas that FinCEN would concentrate on moving forward: new threats, new innovations and new partnerships.
Continue Reading  Transformation of the AML/CFT Regulatory Regime Requires Innovation and Collaboration, According to FinCEN Acting Director

Strategy Reflects Coordinated Focus on Transparency and “Gatekeeper” Responsibilities

Last week, the Biden Administration unveiled a sweeping “whole-of-government approach” to combating corruption.  Identifying corruption as a “cancer within the body of societies—a disease that eats at the public trust and the ability of governments to deliver for their citizens”—the United States Strategy on Countering Corruption (the “Plan”) articulates a global vision for rooting out this national security threat.  The first-of-its-kind approach focuses on responding to corruption’s transnational dimensions, with a specific emphasis on reducing “the ability of corrupt actors to use the U.S. and international financial systems to hide assets and launder proceeds of corrupt acts.”  Although the Plan is grounded in “five-mutually reinforcing pillars,” pillars two and three merit a closer look from this blog’s readers.  They serve as an important recap of the various steps the Administration has taken to combat illicit finance and its strategy for increased enforcement using both the new and existing tools at its disposal.  Further, the Plan implicates many pressing Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (“BSA/AML”) issues on which we repeatedly blog, as we will discuss.
Continue Reading  White House Releases Sweeping U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption

On December 6, FinCEN announced that it was issuing an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“AMPRM”) to solicit public comment on potential requirements under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) for certain persons involved in real estate transactions to collect, report, and retain information.  If finalized, such regulations could affect a whole new set of professionals and one of the largest industries in the U.S.—an industry which, heretofore, has not been subject to the requirements of the BSA, with limited exceptions.

The ANPRM envisions imposing nationwide recordkeeping and reporting requirements on specified participants in transactions involving non-financed real estate purchases, with no minimum dollar threshold.  Fundamentally, FinCEN highlights two alternate, proposed rules.  One proposed option, promulgated under 31 U.S.C § 5318(a)(2), would involve implementing specific and relatively limited reporting requirements, similar to those currently required of title insurance companies in the non-financed real estate market.  This rule would require covered persons to collect and report certain prescribed information, such as, presumably, beneficial ownership.  Alternatively, FinCEN is considering imposing more fulsome Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) monitoring and reporting requirements, including filing Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) and establishing AML/CFT programs under 31 U.S.C. § 5318(g)(1) and 31 U.S.C. §§ 5318(h)(1)-(2).   This latter option would require covered persons to adopt adequate AML/CFT policies, designate an AML/CFT compliance officer, establish AML/CFT training programs, implement independent compliance testing, and perform customer due diligence.

Notably, FinCEN suggests that any new rule may cover attorneys and law firms, along with other client-facing participants.  FinCEN also is considering regulations applicable to both residential and commercial real estate transactions.

As we discuss, real estate and money laundering has been a long-simmering issue.  We repeatedly have blogged on AML and real estate, and previously published a detailed chapter, The Intersection of Money Laundering and Real Estate, in Anti-Money Laundering Laws and Regulations 2020, a publication issued by International Comparative Legal Guides.  FinCEN’s ANPRM appears to represent the culmination of an inevitable march towards the issuance of regulations under the BSA regarding real estate transactions, following years of increasing focus by the U.S. government and others on perceived AML risks in the real estate industry.
Continue Reading  Real Estate and Money Laundering: FinCEN Issues Advanced Notice of Regulations for the Real Estate Industry