Technological Innovation

Federal law enforcement and regulators continue to focus on technology-driven financial crime — specifically, cyber-enabled fraud and the laundering of illicit funds through cryptocurrency.  Last week, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced that Eun Young Choi will serve as the first Director of the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (“NCET”).  As we have blogged, the DOJ created in 2021 the NCET in order to address issues on which we repeatedly have blogged:  crypto exchangers and their AML obligations; the process of tracing digital asset transactions; ransomware; so-called “professional” money launderers; and the use of crypto to launder serious crimes such as drug trafficking and human trafficking.  This attempt at a coordinated government approach to crypto enforcement followed the announcement earlier in 2021 by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) of appointing its first-ever Chief Digital Currency Advisor.

Meanwhile, FinCEN has stressed the need for, and utility of, specific information to be submitted by the victims of cyber-enabled financial crime schemes, or the financial institutions of those victims, to FinCEN’s Rapid Response Program, or RRP.  The RRP seeks to share financial intelligence and recover the proceeds of crime.
Continue Reading  DOJ, FBI and FinCEN Continue to Focus on Crypto and Cyber Financial Crime

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

On December 14, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a request for information (“RFI”), seeking comment on ways to “streamline, modernize, and update” the anti-money laundering (“AML”) and counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) regime of the United States.  As we will discuss, the RFI is the latest development in a protracted inquiry into how to try to leverage technology in order to maximize the usefulness to the government of Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reporting and record-keeping, and minimize the compliance costs imposed on industry.  However, as we also discuss, the RFI may add fuel to ongoing efforts to expand the coverage and reporting requirements of BSA regulations.
Continue Reading  FinCEN Seeks Comments on Modernizing the AML/CFT Regime

Agencies Issue “Crypto Asset Roadmap” for 2022 Guidance, and OCC Confirms Prior Interpretive Letters on Crypto – So Long as Supervisory Regulators Do Not Object

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (“Federal Reserve”), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) (collectively, the “Agencies”) issued on November 23 a short Joint Statement on Crypto-Asset Policy Sprint Initiative and Next Steps (“Joint Statement”), which announced – without further concrete detail – that they had assembled a “crypto asset roadmap” in order to provide greater clarity in 2022 to banks on the permissibility of certain crypto-asset activities.  Only the week before, the Chief Counsel for the OCC issued Interpretive Letter #1179, which confirmed that a bank could engage in certain cryptocurrency, distributed ledger and stablecoin activities – consistent with prior OCC letters – so long as a bank shows that it has sufficient controls in place, and first obtains written notice of “non objection” by its supervisory office.  This post will discuss both publications.

There is great overlap between the bank activities referenced in the Joint Statement and Interpretive Letter #1179.  The 2022 clarity promised by the “roadmap” presumably will supersede, once issued, Interpretive Letter #1179, which appears to function as a general stop-gap until the 2022 publications hopefully provide more detail regarding exactly how banks can attain compliance.

Federal banking regulators have been busy in this space.  These pronouncements come closely on the heels of a Report on Stablecoins issued earlier in November by the Agencies and the U.S. President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, which delineated perceived risks associated with the increased use of stablecoins and highlighted three concerns: risks to rules governing anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance, risks to market integrity, and general prudential risks.
Continue Reading  Federal Bank Regulators Focus on Crypto Assets and Blockchain Activities

Assessment Gives “Thumbs Up” to No-Action Letters but Notes Logistical Challenges

As required by the Anti-Money Laundering Act (“AML Act”), the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued on June 30, 2021 its 14-page assessment regarding the feasibility of FinCEN issuing so-called “no-action” letters to financial institutions (the “Assessment”). FinCEN issued this Assessment on the same day that it issued the first government-wide list of national priorities for anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”), as we have blogged.  In arguable contrast to the AML priorities, FinCEN’s Assessment is full of specific, concrete details and offers interesting insights into how no-action letters may (or may not) work in practice.

Ultimately, the Assessment posits that no-action letters are a desirable step, but that practical challenges remain – including sufficient funding for FinCEN.  According to the Assessment, no-action letters will be the subject of future regulations promulgated by FinCEN.  Although the details of a no-action letter process will be a debated topic, the Assessment gives reassurance that FinCEN takes the issue seriously and that no-action letters likely will occur in some form.
Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Assessment on Possible “No-Action” Letters for Industry

Sixth Post in an Extended Series on Legislative Changes to BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

As we have blogged, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”) contains major changes to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), coupled with other changes relating to money laundering, anti-money laundering (“AML”), counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”), and protecting the U.S. financial system against illicit foreign actors.

A recurring theme of the changes offered by AMLA is information sharing. AMLA mandates that the Department of Treasury’s supervision priorities must include “appropriate frameworks for information sharing among financial institutions, their agents and service providers, their regulatory authorities, associations of financial institutions, the Department of the Treasury, and law enforcement authorities.” The increased emphasis on information sharing is accompanied by provisions requiring confidentiality and data security protocols.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) is already beginning to address AMLA’s focus on the sharing and protection of information, as it explained in its recent detailed Report on FinCEN’s Innovation Hours Program, which focuses on fostering technological innovation in AML/CTF compliance.  In this post, we explore AMLA’s expansion of information sharing, corresponding privacy and data security protections, and the tensions that lie therein.
Continue Reading  AMLA Information-Sharing and Privacy and Data Security Concerns

The Comptroller of the Currency (the “OCC”) has been busy, and focused on technology.  We discuss two recent developments: proposed regulations that would allow the OCC to grant exemptions relating to Suspicious Acivity Reports (“SARs”), and the OCC’s announcement that national banks and federal savings associations may employ both independent node verification networks (“INVNs”) and stablecoins to perform banking functions.

SAR Filing Exemptions

In late December, the OCC proposed new regulations to amend the “Suspicious Activity Report regulations to allow the OCC to issue exemptions . . . for national banks or federal savings associations that develop innovative solutions intended to meet Bank Secrecy Act requirements more efficiently and effectively.” While the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has long held the power to grant exemptions, the OCC does not possess equivalent authority. “As financial technology and innovation” rapidly evolve in monitoring and reporting financial crime, the OCC has determined it must create a flexible regulatory mechanism to keep pace.
Continue Reading  The OCC Embraces Technology, Proposes Exemption to SAR Requirements and Announces Acceptance of Distributed Ledgers and Stablecoins

Second Post in a Three-Post Series Regarding Recent Regulatory Action by FinCEN

On September 16, 2020, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) soliciting public comment on what it describes as “a wide range of questions pertaining to potential regulatory amendments under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).” As stated, the job which FinCEN created for itself that resulted in the ANPRM was not a small one: “to re-examine the BSA regulatory framework and the broader AML regime.”

The ANPRM seeks to help modernize the current BSA/AML regime – modernization being a frequent theme of public comments by FinCEN Director Ken Blanco, as we have blogged. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing calls for AML modernization, in order to “[l]everag[e] new technologies and other responsible innovative compliance approaches to more effectively and efficiently detect illicit activity.” Meanwhile, and as we have blogged, Congress has been contemplating various proposals for BSA/AML reform for some time (see here, here, here, here and here).

Despite its broad language, however, the ANPRM essentially boils down to a potential amendment requiring those financial institutions already required under the BSA to have an AML compliance program to formally include a risk assessment as part of their program – and for the risk assessment to take into account the government’s AML priorities, which the government will announce approximately every two years. On the one hand, this proposal does not add much that is new, because the vast majority of financial institutions required to maintain AML programs already perform risk assessments in order to conduct KYC and file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”). On the other hand, the ANPRM takes a standard industry practice and turns it into a new regulatory requirement, thereby increasing liability risk. The ANPRM also touches on the tension between the government creating objective requirements – which can be helpful because they add clarity – in a compliance and enforcement regime that is supposed to be flexible and “risk based.” Under any scenario, the ANPRM is important and certainly will be the focus of industry attention.

This is the second post in a series of three blogs regarding a recent flurry of regulatory activity by FinCEN. In our first post, we discussed a final rule by FinCEN extending BSA/AML regulatory requirements to banks lacking a Federal functional regulator. In our third and final post, we will discuss the publication by FinCEN of a request for comment on existing regulations regarding enhanced due diligence for correspondent bank accounts.
Continue Reading  Regulatory Round Up: FinCEN Issues ANPRM on Modernizing the BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

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.
Continue Reading  Treasury Department’s 2020 National Illicit Finance Strategy: Aspirations for BSA/AML Modernization and the Combatting of Key Threats

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.”
Continue Reading  FinCEN Stresses Transparency, BSA Filing Data, and Perils of “Under- Regulating” to Securities Industry