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  • INTERPOL seizes $300 million in international financial crime operation

    Financial Crimes

    On December 19, INTERPOL announced the conclusion of a transcontinental police operation against online financial crime called HAECHI IV. The operation ended with around 3,500 arrests and seizures of $300 million USD worth of assets across 34 countries. Of the $300 million, about two-thirds of was hard currency and one-third was virtual assets. HAECHI IV targeted seven types of cyber scams, including voice phishing, romance scams, online sextortion, investment fraud, and money laundering associated with illegal online gambling, among others. Through INTERPOL’s stop-payment mechanism to block criminal proceeds, authorities blocked 82,112 “suspicious” bank accounts. Next on INTERPOL’s radar is a new scam in Korea that involves the sale of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that are a “rug pull,” a crypto scam where developers abandon a project and investors lose their money. Interestingly, the UK team of the operation reported on how scammers used artificial intelligence to create synthetic content, which criminals primarily used for impersonation scams.

    Financial Crimes Fraud UK Of Interest to Non-US Persons

  • DOJ announces crackdown on fraud networks targeting consumer accounts

    Financial Crimes

    On December 15, in conjunction with the DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch efforts to crack down on fraud, the DOJ unsealed two cases against groups that allegedly stole money from consumer accounts with financial institutions. According to the DOJ, the groups used “deceptive tactics” to cover the fraud, and in the two cases, the Department is seeking “temporary restraining orders and the appointment of receivers to stop defendants from dissipating assets.”

    The first case (in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida) involves a group that allegedly committed bank and wire fraud and stole millions from consumers and small businesses by repeatedly creating sham companies. According to the complaint, since at least 2017, the defendants operated fraud schemes disguised as legitimate online marketing service providers by fabricating websites, forging consumer authorizations for charges, and establishing a “customer service” call center to handle complaints. The defendants allegedly obtained bank account information from individuals and small businesses without permission and utilized payment processors to make unauthorized debits to accounts. The DOJ claims that, to carry out the fraud, the defendants used remotely created checks, which are created remotely by a payee using the account holder’s information but without their signature. The second case (in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California) bears many similarities to the first case, including the type of alleged fraud scheme. Both cases also involve the use of “microtransactions,” which are low-dollar fake transactions designed to artificially lower the apparent rate of return or rejected transactions. The defendants in the second case in particular allegedly gathered large deposits from their merchant clients and used those funds to initiate microtransactions that appeared as if they were payments for the merchants’ goods and services. Essentially, according to the Department’s complaint, the merchants paid themselves: the funds initially paid to the defendants were returned to the merchants as microtransactions, while the defendants allegedly collected a percentage of the transactions as service fees. 

    Financial Crimes DOJ Fraud Consumer Protection Enforcement

  • FinCEN, IRS issue alert on Covid-19 employee retention credit fraud schemes

    Financial Crimes

    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. 

    Financial Crimes FinCEN PPP Consumer Finance Loans CARES Act Patriot Act Bank Secrecy Act IRS Covid-19

  • DOJ seizes $9 million in crypto from criminal scammers

    Financial Crimes

    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.

    Financial Crimes DOJ Cryptocurrency Stablecoins Enforcement Money Laundering

  • DOJ announces international malware action, recovers $8.6 million in illicit profits

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    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.”

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security Federal Issues Financial Crimes DOJ Malware Enforcement

  • Senators ask Treasury, White House for answers on North Korea’s crypo-crime funding

    Financial Crimes

    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.

    Financial Crimes Fintech Cryptocurrency Digital Assets Bank Secrecy Act North Korea Department of Treasury

  • EU-U.S. release statement on Joint Financial Regulatory Forum

    Federal Issues

    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.

    Federal Issues Bank Regulatory Financial Crimes Digital Assets Of Interest to Non-US Persons EU Department of Treasury Federal Reserve CFTC FDIC SEC OCC Anti-Money Laundering Combating the Financing of Terrorism

  • FinCEN updates jurisdictions with AML/CFT/CPF deficiencies

    Financial Crimes

    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.”

     

    Financial Crimes Of Interest to Non-US Persons FinCEN Anti-Money Laundering Combating the Financing of Terrorism FATF Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation Financing OFAC

  • OFAC sanctions Mexico-based human smuggling organization

    Financial Crimes

    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.

    Financial Crimes Of Interest to Non-US Persons OFAC OFAC Designations OFAC Sanctions Department of Treasury SDN List Mexico

  • OFAC sanctions Burma Ministry of Defense and supporting financial institutions

    Financial Crimes

    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).

    Financial Crimes Of Interest to Non-US Persons OFAC OFAC Designations OFAC Sanctions Department of Treasury Burma Russia SDN List

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