Trade Based Money Laundering

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

Earlier this month, John Can Unsalan, the president of a steel-making company with ties to Russian oligarchs, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, based on financial transactions committed with the alleged intent to promote U.S. sanctions violations.

Unsalan’s company, known as Metalhouse LLC, was formed in Florida in 2014. According to the plea agreement, between 2018 and 2021 Unsalan facilitated transactions through Metalhouse with companies controlled by Sergey Kurchenko, a Russian oligarch who has been on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN”) List since 2015 (Kurchenko was initially put on the SDN List for allegedly misappropriating state funds belonging to Ukraine). It is generally illegal for U.S. persons to directly or indirectly conduct business with individuals or entities on the SDN List – although the U.S. government is able to grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

According to the factual basis supporting the plea agreement, Unsalan knowingly participated in a scheme with Kurchenko to evade sanctions through Metalhouse transactions, which totaled around $157 million over the relevant three-year period. The scheme involved two shell companies – one formed in Hong Kong and one in Cyprus – controlled by Kurchenko. Unsalan and his associate at Metalhouse met with Kurchenko in person and subsequently contracted with Kurchenko’s companies to order steel and other raw materials and to pay for the materials using offshore bank accounts. Ultimately, Unsalan and Metalhouse received a total of over $160 million from reselling those materials to third parties – and although most of that money went to Kurchenko to pay for additional raw materials, the factual basis supporting the plea agreement alleged that Unsalan kept millions in profits for his own personal use.

Continue Reading  Steel Company President with Ties to Russian Oligarch Pleads Guilty to Money Laundering Conspiracy Involving Alleged Sanctions Violations

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 May 19, 2023 the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) released a joint supplemental alert (the “Supplemental Alert”) concerning Russian export control evasion attempts.  The supplemental alert adds to and refines the June 28, 2022 alert about which we previously blogged.

According to the Supplemental Alert, the sanctions imposed by the Global Export Control Coalition (“GECC”) in response to the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine has been successful in “significantly degrad[ing]” Russia’s “military-industrial complex and defense supply chains” and making it difficult to replace the estimated “10,000 pieces of equipment” that Russia has lost on the battlefield.  The Supplemental Alert cautions that Russia has tasked its “intelligence services with finding ways to circumvent sanctions and export controls to replace needed equipment.”

In response, the BIS has imposed additional export control restrictions on February 24, 2023 on items such as components for aircraft and tanks, semiconductors, and “low-technology consumer goods.”  BIS has extended these export control restrictions beyond Russia’s borders, to Iran and China.  BIS believes that Iran and China have “served as supply nodes to the Russian war machine.”  The Department of Justice and the Commerce Department also announced in February the creation of the Disruptive Technology Strike Force, which brings together experts from across government and across the nation to, among other things, “protect critical technological assets from being acquired or used by nation-state adversaries.”  This strike force is in addition to the now well-known Task Force KleptoCapture that was formed last year.

Continue Reading  FinCEN and BIS Issue Supplemental Joint Alert on Russian Export Control Evasion Attempts

We previously blogged on an advisory issued by FinCEN alerting financial institutions to the various financial mechanisms used by traffickers of fentanyl and synthetic opioids to launder the burgeoning proceeds of their illicit activities. In the years since, the volume of that drug trade has only increased, as tragically evidenced in part by the skyrocketing rate of fentanyl-related deaths per year – in the U.S. alone, rising from around 28,000 to almost 70,000 in the past five years.

Recognizing this as a global concern requiring transnational solutions to address it, on November 30 the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”), an intergovernmental organization comprised of 38 national members and two regional organizations (the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council), released a report, coordinated by the U.S. and Canada, on money laundering stemming from trade in fentanyl and synthetic opioids, with specific recommendations for counteracting the cash flow of the groups engaged in this activity.

The report attempts to focus greater attention on the transnational aspect of the global fentanyl trade. It notes that the trade is fueled by organized crime groups which are able to utilize a high level of sophistication both in the acquisition of drugs for sale and distribution, and in the subsequent laundering of proceeds.

Continue Reading  Countering Financial Flows From the Illicit Trade in Fentanyl and Synthetic Opioids

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) issued a joint alert on June 28, 2022, warning of evasion attempts by individuals or entities to circumvent BIS export controls implemented in response to the Russian Federation’s renewed invasion of Ukraine. Both agencies urged financial institutions to remain vigilant against bad actors’ attempts to evade BIS export controls. The alert provided an overview of current BIS export restrictions, listed particular commodities of concern for export control evasion, and outlined transactional and behavioral red flags that could indicate attempts to avoid sanctions.

This is FinCEN’s third alert in relation to sanctions imposed on Russian in response to the war in Ukraine.  As we previously blogged, on March 7, 2022, FinCEN urged vigilance by financial institutions against potential Russian Federation attempts to evade sanctions. On March 16, 2022, FinCEN reiterated the need for increased vigilance by financial institutions in detecting suspicious transactions involving real estate, luxury goods, and other high-value assets.

The joint alert comes on the heels of the June 27, 2022 announcement by the United States and the other G7 nations to intensify their coordinated sanction measures in response to Russia’s war of aggression.  A day later, on June 28, 2022, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued determinations pursuant to prior Executive Orders implementing the new measures.  These include prohibiting the importation of Russian gold (EO 14068), as well as new sanctions and export restrictions on entities like Rostec, a key Russian state owned conglomerate, which forms the foundation of Russia’s defense industry (EO 14024).

Continue Reading  FinCEN and BIS Issue Joint Alert on Potential Russian and Belarusian Export Control Evasion

Global environmental crime—the third largest illicit activity in the world, according to a report by the FATF—is estimated to generate hundreds of billions in illicit proceeds annually.  This criminal activity harms human health, the climate, and natural resources.  To help address the threat presented by environmental crimes, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an environmental crimes and associated illicit financial activity notice (Notice) on November 18, 2021.  The FinCEN Notice states that environmental crime and related illicit financial activity are associated strongly with corruption and transnational criminal organizations, both of which FinCEN has identified as national anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) priorities for financial institutions to detect and report.

We have blogged with increasing frequency (see here, here, here and here) on the nexus between environmental crime and illicit financial flows, and how these money laundering risks are often overlooked and are especially difficult for financial institutions to monitor.  Environmental offenses are also receiving more attention in the U.S., in part because of the growing interest by investors, companies and regulators in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) concerns.

The Notice includes an appendix that describes five categories of environmental crimes and the illicit financial activity related to them: wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, illegal fishing, illegal mining, and waste and hazardous substances trafficking.  The Notice also includes new suspicious activity report (SAR) filing instructions in order to enhance analysis and reporting of illicit financial flows related to environmental crime.
Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Notice on Environmental Crimes and Illicit Financial Activity

Second Post in a Series on the FATF Plenary Outcomes

As we blogged, last month the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) held its fourth Plenary, inviting delegates from around the world to (virtually) meet and discuss a wide range of global financial crimes and ongoing risk areas. Following the Plenary, FATF identified a number of strategic initiatives for future research and publication, and issued six reports to detail their findings on specific topics. One such report, Money Laundering from Environmental Crime (the “Report”), and its implications for anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorist (“CFT”), will be the focus of this post.

The 66-page Report is compiled from case studies and best practices submitted by over 40 countries, as well as input from international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. While this Report is the first deep dive into environmental crimes and recommendations for members of the FATF Global Network, it is not the first time FATF has addressed environmental issues. The current Report aims to build upon FATF’s previous study on money laundering and the illegal wildlife trade, on which we also blogged. The current Report is also connected to earlier FATF studies on money laundering risks from the gold trade and the diamond trade.  Indeed, the Report references U.S. enforcement cases involving money laundering and gold or diamonds on which we previously have blogged (see here, here and here).

As this post will discuss, these areas of money laundering risk are often overlooked and are especially difficult to monitor. Further, the Report finds that “[l]imited cooperation between AML/CFT authorities and environmental crime and protection agencies in most countries presents a major barrier to effectively tackle [money laundering] from environmental crimes.”  Stated otherwise, government AML/financial flow experts and government environmental law experts don’t understand or even consider each other’s area of expertise, and often don’t communicate with each other, resulting in missed enforcement opportunities.  With global environmental crimes generating up to $281 billion per year, the Report suggests that government interventions are not proportionate to the severity of this issue. By issuing this Report, FATF hopes to raise awareness of the scope and scale of harm caused by environmental crimes and related money laundering, and enhance collaboration by financial crime and environmental crime enforcement officials.
Continue Reading  FATF Issues First-Ever Report on Environmental Crime and Money Laundering

This is a picture of a Black Rhinoceros.  It is one of two Rhinoceros species in Africa.  It is estimated that there were approximately 125,000 Black Rhinoceroses in 1960.  Now, there are less than 6,000. Three subspecies are already extinct. Although loss of habitat is certainly a contributing factor, much of this decimation is attributable to poaching and the illegal wildlife trade (“IWT”).

The Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) just released an important report entitled Money Laundering and the Illegal Wildlife Trade (the “Report”).  The lengthy and detailed Report makes clear that the IWT is pernicious cocktail of animal slaughter/abuse and complex financial crime, often run by highly organized groups that thrive on international cooperation by complicit actors and the use of shell companies.  The Report bemoans the fact that the IWT benefits from a lack of focus and priority by law enforcement. Accordingly, the Report seeks to spread awareness of the IWT, provide general guidance on combatting it, and propose action steps.  One theme of the Report is that effectively combatting the IWT requires financial investigations and money laundering charges.
Continue Reading  Money Laundering and the Illegal Wildlife Trade

In the past month, the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”), a non-partisan legislative agency that monitors and audits government spending and operations, has issued a series of reports urging banking regulators and certain executive branch agencies to adopt recommendations related to trade-based money laundering (“TBML”) and derisking. These reports underscore (1) the importance of TBML as a key, although still inadequately measured, component of money laundering worldwide, and (2) that the GAO remains interested in assessing how banks’ regulatory concerns may be influencing their willingness to provide services.

Taken together, the GAO’s recent activity signals that even in the face of unprecedented public health and regulatory challenges posed by COVID-19, the GAO still expects banking regulators and agencies alike to fulfill its prior commitments on other, unrelated topics.

Continue Reading  Government Accountability Office Roundup: Recent Activity on Topics Related to Trade-Based Money Laundering and Derisking