Suspicious Activity Report (SAR)

First of Three Posts in a Related Series on Recent AML and Money Laundering Prosecutions

The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has been very active in the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) / Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) space, as reflected by a recent series of individual prosecutions and corporate non-prosecution agreements (“NPAs”). 

In this first blog post, we will discuss a significant prosecution of an individual, and two related corporate NPAs, involving the gaming industry

In the next related post, we will discuss two unusual prosecutions involving, respectively, an individual executive of a bank and an alleged AML specialist working with small financial institutions.  

In our final post, we will discuss the prosecution and sentencing of a lawyer who allegedly became part of the fraud and money laundering scheme perpetrated by his crypto client.

Although these cases are all unique and interesting in their own way, they are also all united in certain ways – particularly in regards to the need for institutions to perform sufficient due diligence regarding the conduct and source of funds of high- or higher-risk customers, and the related need for institutions to ensure that their own employees are not undermining the institutions’ AML compliance programs.

Continue Reading  Criminal Case Round-Up: Recent Prosecutions Involving Casinos

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) recently released a Financial Trend Analysis (“FTA”) focusing on identity-related suspicious activity.  The FTA was issued pursuant to section 6206 of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020, which requires FinCEN to periodically publish threat pattern and trend information derived from BSA filings.

FinCEN examined information from Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) filings submitted in the 2021 calendar year.  According to FinCEN’s analysis, 1.6 million “BSA filings” – presumably, the vast majority of which constituted Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) – were identity-related, representing a total of $212 billion in suspicious activity.  These filings constituted 42% of filings for that year, thereby meaning that approximately 3.8 million SARs were filed in 2021.

The descriptions and the explanations in the FTA necessarily turn on how the SAR filings chose to describe the suspicious activity at issue.  This is presumably why most of the activity falls into the vague category of “general fraud” – because, apparently, this is the particular box on the SAR form which most of the SAR filers happened to choose.  However, and we will describe, the activity in fact animating the vast majority of these SARs is some form of identity theft.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Analysis Reveals $212 Billion in Identity-Related Suspicious Activity

The October 7, 2023 attacks on Israel by Hamas have re-focused U.S. government efforts to identify and counter funding streams for Hamas and terrorist activity in general – including, in particular, through the use of cryptocurrency.  This heightened focus is exemplified by a recent report (“Report”) published by the Congressional Research Service (“CRS”), which examines the role of cryptocurrency donations in Hamas fundraising campaigns, which long predate the October 7 attacks.  The Report references recent, related efforts by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), which we also discuss.

Continue Reading  Hamas, Terrorist Financing, and Cryptocurrency

A Huge Monetary Penalty for Sprawling Allegations – But Will Zhao Receive a Prison Sentence?

As the world now knows, Binance Holdings Limited, doing business as Binance.com (“Binance” or the “Company”), has entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”).  

Binance is registered in the Cayman Islands and regarded as the world’s largest virtual currency exchange. It agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) by failing to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program; knowingly failing to register as a money services business (“MSB”); and willfully causing violations of U.S. economic sanctions issued pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”). Despite the plea agreement, Binance will continue to operate.

Changpeng Zhao, also known as “CZ,” also pleaded guilty to violating the BSA by failing to implement and maintain an effective AML program. Zhao is Binance’s primary founder, majority owner, and – until now – CEO. As part of his plea agreement, Zhao has stepped down as the CEO, although he apparently will keep his shares in Binance.

As part of its plea agreement, Binance has agreed to forfeit $2,510,650,588 and to pay a criminal fine of $1,805,475,575 for a total criminal penalty of $4,316,126,163. Binance also entered into related civil consent orders with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (“OFAC”). Zhao also entered into a consent order with the CFTC.

The allegations are vast and detailed, and much digital ink already has been spilled regarding this matter. Our discussion therefore will be relatively high-level. Distilled, the government alleges that Binance – under the direction of Zhao – tried to hide the fact that it operated in the U.S., purposefully avoided any meaningful AML compliance, and consequently laundered many millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency involving extremely serious criminal conduct, including terrorism, child pornography, and U.S. sanctions evasion.

As for Zhao, and as we will discuss, whether he will go to prison – and if so, for how long – is an open and very interesting question. His sentencing currently is scheduled for February 23, 2024.

Continue Reading  Binance Settles Criminal and Civil AML and Sanctions Enforcement Actions for Multiple Billions – While its Founder, Owner and Former CEO Zhao Pleads Guilty to Single AML Crime

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (the “Court”) has issued a detailed and complicated Order in the case Banco San Juan Internacional, Inc. v. Fed. Reserve Bank of New York, denying a motion for preliminary injunction by Banco San Juan Internacional, Inc. (“BSJI”), a Puerto Rican bank entity, against the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (the “FRBNY”) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the “Board”).

The case arose out of the FRBNY’s decision to close BSJI’s master account for alleged deficiencies in its anti-money laundering (“AML”) system, which thereby posed systemic risk. The Court held, amongst other rulings, that there is no statutory right to a so-called “master account” with a federal reserve bank.

After the Court filed its Order on October 27, BSJI filed its appeal on October 30, and requested an emergency stay pending appeal and an expedited appeal. On November 9, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit referred BSJI’s motion for a stay pending appeal and to expedite to a three-judge motions panel and denied the request for a stay pending appeal.

As we have blogged, and generalizing greatly, having a master account allows financial institutions to operate in the normal course as a custodial bank in the U.S. Having a master account is therefore critical to any institution looking to operate in the U.S. financial system. Accordingly, the FRBNY’s decision, and the Court’s Order, in effect prevent BSJI from operating.

Although some of the background allegations are eye-catching, the Order makes broad legal pronouncements, many of which are not necessarily tied to the alleged facts. The Order therefore emphasizes the significant and unilateral powers of a federal reserve bank, and its discretion to provide or deny master accounts going forward. These powers apply to all financial institutions and require financial institutions to take a serious approach in meeting their AML obligations under the BSA as well as regulator remediation and recommendations regarding the same.  This matter also illustrates how a financial institution can resolve an enforcement action with the Department of Justice, only to find itself still facing an existential threat posed by a regulator for the same underlying activity. 

Continue Reading  SDNY Court Finds Broad Fed Powers Over Master Accounts in Puerto Rican Bank Case Involving AML Concerns

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) recently issued Joint Notice FIN-2023-NTC2, “Announnc[ing] New Reporting Key Term and Highlight[ing] Red Flags Relating to Global Evasion of U.S. Export Controls” (the “Joint Notice”). As we have blogged (here and here), these agencies issued two prior joint alerts warning financial institutions (“FIs”) about efforts by individuals or entities to evade Russia-related export controls administered by BIS.

The practical import of the Joint Notice – which re-emphasizes the focus of the U.S. government on fighting sanctions evasion – is that many customers involved in international trade should be subject to some degree of enhanced due diligence by FIs, simply because they participate in international trade.  FIs should review and adjust their risk assessments accordingly.

Continue Reading  FinCEN and BIS Issue Joint Notice on SAR Filings for Evasion of U.S. Export Controls

Priorities Echo Prior Alerts and Enforcement Actions

The SEC’s Division of Examinations (the “Division”) released on October 16 a report on its “Examination Priorities” (the “Report”) for fiscal year 2024.  This release occurred earlier than in prior years, which the Report’s prefatory message characterizes as an example of the Division’s “intention to provide more transparency” and “to move forward together with investors and industry to promote compliance.”

The Report

The Report highlights four major areas of focus for the Division’s examinations in the coming year, which it terms “risk areas impacting various market participants”:

  1. Anti-money laundering (“AML”);
  2. Information security and “operational resilience”;
  3. Crypto and emerging financial technologies (“fintech”); and
  4. Regulation systems compliance and integrity (“SCI”).

As to AML, the Report first rehearses the requirement of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) for broker-dealers: namely, that they establish AML programs tailored to their unique risk profile – their location, size, customer base, menu of products and services, and method of delivery of those products and services. The Report further notes that such AML programs must be reasonably designed to achieve compliance with the BSA and related regulations, must undergo independent testing of their viability, and must include customer due diligence procedures and ongoing transaction monitoring – including, where appropriate, filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”).  Although the Report also references “certain registered investment companies,” investment advisers as a group are not (yet) subject to the BSA.

Continue Reading  SEC Exam Priorities Target AML

On September 29, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) entered into a consent order with Shinhan Bank America (“SHBA”), which imposed a $15 million dollar civil penalty against SHBA for allegedly willfully failing to implement and maintain an AML program that meets the minimum requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and for allegedly willfully failing to accurately and timely report suspicious transactions to FinCEN.

In its press release, FinCEN noted that, as a result of SHBA’s inactions, “tens of millions of dollars in suspicious transactions were not reported to FinCEN in a timely manner, including transactions connected to tax evasion, public corruption, money laundering, and other financial crimes.”

Working in collaboration with FinCEN, the FDIC also separately issued a civil penalty against SHBA in the amount of $5 million dollars – which FinCEN will credit toward its own fine, leaving an amount owed of $10 million dollars – and the NYDFS also issued a stand-alone civil penalty in the amount of $10 million dollars.

As we will discuss, this enforcement action involves several typical allegations by the government, including an alleged failure to file required SARs, prior regulatory problems, and insufficient AML compliance staffing and funding.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues $15 Million Dollar Civil Penalty Against Shinhan Bank America for Alleged Failure to Implement and Maintain Effective AML Compliance Program

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) issued a joint alert and a supplemental alert (the “Joint Alerts”) urging U.S. financial institutions (“FIs”) to be attentive to attempts by Russia to evade U.S. sanctions and export controls. The Joint Alerts also reminded FIs of their obligations to file suspicious activity reports (“SAR”s) detailing suspected export control evasion.  We blogged on the Joint Alerts here and here.

FIs complied, and on September 8, 2023, FinCEN published a Financial Trend Analysis (“FTA”) describing insight it gained from those SARs into Russian procurement activities potentially in violation of the Export Administration Regulations. FinCEN issued the FTA right before the Office of Foreign Asset Control (“OFAC”) announced on September 14, 2023 another wave of related sanctions by adding to the list of Specially Designated Nationals more than 150 foreign companies and individuals accused of aiding Russia, including by shipping American or other Western technology.

The FTA is based on 333 SARs filed between June 28, 2022 and July 12, 2023. The SARs—96% of which were filed by U.S.-based depository institutions—detailed nearly 1 billion dollars in suspicious activity

Continue Reading  FinCEN Analysis Reveals Patterns and Trends in Suspected Evasion of Russia-Related Export Controls

On September 8, 2023, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) released an alert regarding a notorious virtual currency scam called “pig butchering,” because, unfortunately, it resembles the “fattening a hog before slaughter.” These scams are primarily perpetrated by criminal organizations in Southeast Asia where these scams are also called “Sha Zhu Pan.”

The unwitting victims are the so-called “pigs,” who, according to various U.S. law enforcement sources, have lost billions of dollars to this scam. Unfortunately, some victims have liquidated tax-advantaged accounts or taken out home equity lines of credit or second mortgages to purchase virtual currency, as part of falling victim to these scams. The alert highlights that pig butchering is linked to fraud and cybercrime, two of FinCEN’s stated national priorities.

As we discuss, FinCEN’s alert provides 15 “red flags” for financial institutions (“FIs”) to consider when attempting to detect, prevent and report potential suspicious activity relating to such scams.  These “red flags” may serve not only to put FIs on guard for potential Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”) filings under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), but they also may serve as considerations for FIs to try to detect and stop such activity, in order to cut off potential related civil suits by victim customers who may blame a FI for purportedly “allowing” the scam to occur.

Continue Reading  “Pig Butchering”: FinCEN Issues Alert on Virtual Currency Scam