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On November 22, FinCEN and the IRS issued an alert to financial institutions regarding Covid-19 Employee Retention Credit (ERC)-related fraud schemes. Authorized by the CARES Act, the ERC is a tax credit aimed at incentivizing businesses to retain employees on payroll during the Covid-19 pandemic, through which fraud and scams have been carried out, FinCEN explained. The alert offers insights into typologies linked to ERC fraud and scams, emphasizes specific warning signs to aid financial institutions in detecting and reporting suspicious activities, and reinforces these institutions' obligations to report under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).
According to the alert, “[d]uring the 2023 tax season, the IRS noted various scammers appeared throughout the [U.S.] using the false pretense of being tax credit experts to convince businesses to file for the ERC.” Third-party ERC promoters misled taxpayers about eligibility, aiming to profit from filing ERC claims without verifying qualifications, FinCEN added. As a result, the alert mentioned that victims risk claim denial or repayment, while scammers profit regardless of the claim's outcome, involving both willing and unaware businesses in these schemes. FinCEN added that businesses must meet specific ERC requirements, and those who received PPP loans cannot use the same wages counted in the PPP loan for the ERC application. Despite this, some may file amended tax returns misrepresenting their eligibility for the ERC by falsifying staff wages or claiming their operations were partially or fully suspended during the pandemic. FinCEN listed “red flags” indicative of ERC fraud that financial institutions should be cognizant of, including, among others, (i) a business account that receives multiple ERC check deposits over several days; (ii) small business accounts that receive ERC check deposits disproportionate to their size, employee count, and transaction volume; and (iii) a new account for an established business that only receives ERC deposits, suggesting possible identity theft using the business as a front for fraudulent claims. The alert also reminds financial institutions of their obligation to file suspicious activity reports and to keep a copy of the reports for five years from the date of the filing.
On November 21, the DOJ seized nearly $9 million in stablecoins from cryptocurrency scammers after the criminals exploited over 70 victims. The DOJ seized stablecoins, a certain crypto asset pegged to a central bank’s currency, tied to the U.S. dollar. The scammers employed a long-con technique called “pig butchering” which is a tactic to build and exploit a victim’s trust over time by creating fake romantic enticements meant to swindle victims into handing over money. The criminals targeted and convinced victims to “make cryptocurrency deposits by fraudulently representing that the victims were making investments with trusted firms and cryptocurrency exchanges.”
The DOJ was able to trace the stolen funds based on the funds’ cryptocurrency addresses as part of a money laundering technique known as “chain hopping… used to ‘layer’ the proceeds of criminal activity into new cryptocurrency ecosystems, all to obfuscate the… ownership of those proceeds.” The DOJ worked with the U.S. Secret Service to trace the victim’s deposits, and it was originally alerted from victim reports made on the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network.
On August 29, the DOJ announced a multinational operation involving the U.S., France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Romania, and Latvia to “disrupt” a malware’s infrastructure called Qakbot. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland stated that, “[t]ogether with our international partners, the Justice Department has hacked Qakbot’s infrastructure, launched an aggressive campaign to uninstall the malware from victim computers in the United States and around the world, and seized $8.6 million in extorted funds. ” The main method by which the Qakbot malware spreads to target computers is via spam emails that contain harmful attachments or links. Upon successfully infecting a target computer, the DOJ mentioned that Qakbot gains the capability to introduce other types of malware, such as ransomware. Over the past few years, many ransomware collectives have used Qakbot as an initial avenue for initiating infections and has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The DOJ highlighted that “[t]he action represents the largest U.S.-led financial and technical disruption of a botnet infrastructure leveraged by cybercriminals to commit ransomware, financial fraud, and other cyber-enabled criminal activity.”
On August 4, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) sent a letter to the White House National Security Advisor and the Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence regarding their concerns over North Korea’s use of cyberattacks and cryptocurrency theft to skirt international sanctions and embargos. The letter urges the Treasury to provide details on its plan to stop North Korea from using digital assets to evade sanctions and continue with the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The senators noted that a UN report found that in 2016, “North Korea exhibited a ‘clear shift’ to attacking cryptocurrency exchanges for the purposes of ‘generating financial revenue’” that is difficult to trace and subject to less government oversight. The letter highlights the effects of the cyberattacks, including how they have generated about $2 billion, which is then used to fund the North Korean military. The extent of the cybercrime and cryptocurrency thefts show its use is “key” to the regime’s survival, and notes that the regime has a workforce of thousands of IT workers who operate out of many different countries. The senators asked for a response to their five questions by August 16.
On July 20, participants in the U.S.-EU Joint Financial Regulatory Forum, including officials from the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve Board, CFTC, FDIC, SEC, and OCC, issued a joint statement regarding the ongoing dialogue that took place from June 27-28, noting that the matters discussed during the forum focused on six themes: “(1) market developments and financial stability risks; (2) regulatory developments in banking and insurance; (3) anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); (4) sustainable finance and climate-related financial risks; (5) regulatory and supervisory cooperation in capital markets; and (6) operational resilience and digital finance.”
Participants acknowledged that the financial sector in both the EU and the U.S. is exposed to risk due to ongoing inflationary pressures, uncertainties in the global economic outlook, and geopolitical tensions as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine. During discussions, participants emphasized the significance of strong bank prudential standards, effective resolution frameworks, and robust supervision practices. They also stressed the importance of international cooperation and continued dialogue to monitor vulnerabilities and strengthen the resilience of the financial system. Participants took note of recent developments relating to, among other things, recent bank failures, digital finance, the crypto-asset market, and the potential adoption of central bank digital currencies.
On June 29, FinCEN announced that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) issued a public statement updating its lists of jurisdictions with strategic deficiencies in anti-money laundering (AML), countering the financing of terrorism (CFT), and countering the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destructions (CPF). FATF’s statements include (i) Jurisdictions under Increased Monitoring, “which publicly identifies jurisdictions with strategic deficiencies in their AML/CFT/CPF regimes that have committed to, or are actively working with, the FATF to address those deficiencies in accordance with an agreed upon timeline,” and (ii) High-Risk Jurisdictions Subject to a Call for Action, “which publicly identifies jurisdictions with significant strategic deficiencies in their AML/CFT/CPF regimes and calls on all FATF members to apply enhanced due diligence, and, in the most serious cases, apply counter-measures to protect the international financial system from the money laundering, terrorist financing, and proliferation financing risks emanating from the identified countries.”
FinCEN’s announcement also informed members that FATF added Cameroon, Croatia, and Vietnam it its list to the list of Jurisdictions Under Increased Monitoring and advised jurisdictions to apply enhanced due diligence proportionate to the risks. FATF did not remove any jurisdictions from the list. Additionally, the announcement suggests that money service businesses refer to FinCEN’s Guidance on compliance obligations to employ adequate measures against money laundering and the financing of terrorism posed by their foreign relationships. Also noted in the announcement is that the list of high-risk jurisdictions subject to a call for action, remains the same. FinCEN reminded in the announcement that U.S. financial institutions are still broadly prohibited from engaging in transactions or dealings with Iran, and they should continue to refer to existing FinCEN and Office of Foreign Assets Control guidance on engaging in financial transactions with Burma. With respect to high-risk jurisdictions subject to a call for action — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Iran — “financial institutions must comply with the extensive U.S. restrictions and prohibitions against opening or maintaining any correspondent accounts, directly or indirectly, for North Korean or Iranian financial institutions,” FinCEN said, adding that “[e]xisting U.S. sanctions and FinCEN regulations already prohibit any such correspondent account relationships.”
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) recently announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13581 against a human smuggling organization, and several individuals and entities in its support network. OFAC claimed the Mexico-based organization, Hernandez Salas transnational criminal organization (TCO), earns billions of dollars per year smuggling and creating false documentation for migrants. The leader of the TCO has been sanctioned, among four other supporters. OFAC reported that the individuals are currently incarcerated in Mexico and awaiting extradition to the U.S. for trial before a federal grand jury. Also sanctioned are two Mexican hotels that have taken part in the TCO’s smuggling operations. OFAC noted that the sanctions were pursued in close collaboration with Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit.
As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property belonging to the sanctioned persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. Additionally, “any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked.” U.S. persons are also generally prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons.
On June 21, pursuant to Executive Order 14014, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions against Burma’s Ministry of Defense and two regime-controlled financial institutions. In announcing the sanctions, OFAC explained that the Burmese military, which overthrew the country’s democratic government in February 2021, has increased its reliance on air strikes in civilian populated areas, resulting in the death of more than 3,600 civilians and displacing nearly than 1.5 million people, and that Burma’s Ministry of Defense has imported goods from sanctioned entities in Russia to support the Burmese military. OFAC detailed that the two sanctioned financial institutions, which primarily function as foreign currency exchanges, “enable Burma’s Ministry of Defense and other sanctioned military entities to purchase arms and other materials from foreign sources.” As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property belonging to the sanctioned persons that are in the U.S. or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. Additionally, “any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked.” U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons, unless authorized by a general or specific OFAC license, or if otherwise exempt.
In conjunction with the sanctions, OFAC issued a Burma-related special license (See General License 5).
On June 15, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions, pursuant to Executive Orders (E.O.) 13382 and 13810, against two individuals involved in the procurement of equipment and materials that support the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) ballistic missile program. According to OFAC, the missile program relies on foreign-sourced ballistic missile-related components that it cannot produce domestically. One of the sanctioned persons has collaborated with a number of individuals to purchase and procure items including those known to be used in the production of DPRK ballistic missiles. The individual’s wife is the second sanctioned individual listed as “being a North Korean person, including a North Korean person that has engaged in commercial activity that generates revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.”
As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property of the designated persons that are in the U.S., or in the possession or control of U.S. persons, are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked. OFAC further mentioned, “any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction or provides significant financial services for any of the individuals or entities designated today could be subject to U.S. correspondent or payable-through account sanctions.”
On June 23, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions, pursuant to Executive Order 14024, against two individuals for attempting to conduct “global malign influence operations,” including efforts to influence a U.S. local election. According to OFAC, the designated individuals are Russian Federal Security Service officers who operate as part of a mission that provokes anti-government and anti-democratic positions designed to undermine faith in democratic principles, weaken U.S. diplomatic connections, and exploits societal divisions in an effort to expand Russia’s influence. OFAC said one of the individuals directed more than six U.S. co-conspirators, including two who ran in local U.S. elections, to report on the activities of political groups. OFAC designated the two individuals “for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the Government of the Russian Federation.” The designated individuals were also recently indicted by the DOJ as well as by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida. In a parallel action announced the same day, the EU released its Eleventh Package of sanctions against Russia. The Eleventh Package added, among other things, over 100 individuals and entities subject to asset freezes, a new anti-circumvention tool to restrict the trade of sanctioned goods, and 87 new entities to the list of those directly supporting Russia’s military and industrial complex in the war against Ukraine.
As a result of these sanctions, all property and interests in property belonging to the sanctioned persons that are in the U.S. or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. Further, “any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, individually or in the aggregate, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked.” U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons, unless exempt or authorized by a general or specific OFAC license. Additionally, OFAC warned that financial institutions and other persons that engage in certain transactions or activities with the sanctioned persons may themselves be exposed to sanctions or be subject to an enforcement action.