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Agencies flag intermediaries in evading Russia-related sanctions
On March 2, the DOJ, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) issued a joint compliance note on the use of third-party intermediaries or transshipment points to evade Russian- and Belarussian-related sanctions and export controls. This is the first collective effort taken by the three agencies to inform the international community, the private sector, and the public about efforts taken by malign actors to evade sanctions and export controls in order to provide support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. The compliance note outlines enforcement trends and details attempts made by Russia “to circumvent restrictions, disguise the involvement of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons  or parties on the Entity List in transactions, and obscure the true identities of Russian end users.” The compliance note also provides common red flags indicating whether a third-party intermediary may be engaged in efforts to evade sanctions or export controls, and outlines guidance for companies on maintaining effective, risk-based sanctions and export compliance programs. The agencies highlight other measures taken to constrain Russia, including stringent export controls imposed by BIS to restrict Russia’s access to technologies and other items, sanctions and civil money penalties issued against U.S. persons who violate OFAC sanctions and non-U.S. persons who cause U.S. persons to violate Russian sanctions programs, and the DOJ’s interagency law enforcement task force, Task Force KleptoCapture, which enforces sanctions, export controls, and economic countermeasures imposed by the U.S. and foreign allies and partners.
OFAC settles with Indian tobacco company on North Korean transactions
On March 1, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a $332,500 settlement with an India-registered tobacco company to resolve allegations that it “requested payment in U.S. dollars for its indirect exportation of tobacco to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [(DPRK)].” According to OFAC’s web notice, in late 2016, an assistant manager at the company and a representative from a Thai intermediary began communicating about a prospective order of tobacco from a DPRK customer. A decision was eventually made not to include the DPRK customer or to list the DPRK in trade documents for the order. Rather, the order listed the Thai intermediary as the customer and China as the destination. OFAC maintained that the company issued three invoices to the Thai intermediary for its tobacco orders, and asked that payments be sent in USD to either the company’s bank account at a non-U.S. bank in India or to the India-branch of a U.S. bank. Between July and August 2017, four Hong Kong-organized intermediaries remitted funds to the company for these shipments and made five payments totaling approximately $369,228. Four of the five USD payments were sent to the non-U.S. bank, causing three U.S. financial institutions to clear the payments. The fifth payment was sent to the India-branch of a U.S. bank. By directing the Hong Kong intermediaries to remit payments in USD, OFAC claimed the company “caused U.S. correspondent banks that processed the payments, as well as the foreign branch of a U.S. bank, to export financial services to or otherwise facilitate the exportation of tobacco to the DPRK” in violation of the North Korea Sanctions Regulations.
In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC determined, among other things, that several managers had actual knowledge of the alleged conduct at issue, and that the company “acted recklessly” by “fail[ing] to exercise a minimal degree of caution or care for U.S. sanctions laws and regulations and caus[ing] U.S. financial institutions to export financial services or otherwise facilitate the exportation of tobacco to the DPRK.”
OFAC also considered various mitigating factors, including that the company has not received a penalty notice from OFAC in the preceding five years. Additionally, the company undertook remedial measures upon learning of the alleged violations, cooperated with OFAC throughout the investigation, and agreed to toll the statute of limitations, the notice said.
Providing context for the settlement, OFAC said that this action “highlights the deceptive practices DPRK entities use to evade U.S. and international sanctions and acquire revenue-generating goods, such as by employing intermediaries in various countries to coordinate shipping and make payments.”
OFAC sanctions timeshare fraud network
On March 2, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions, pursuant to Executive Order 14059, against eight Mexican companies connected to timeshare fraud on behalf of the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG). The CJNG is also designated under E.O. 14059. OFAC described timeshare fraud typology, explaining that schemes often involve third-party scammers who claim to have ready buyers and make unsolicited purchase offers to timeshare owners. If these offers are accepted, the scammers ask timeshare owners to pay advance fees and taxes to “facilitate or expedite the sale with assurances of reimbursement upon closing.” However, timeshare owners, after making multiple payments, eventually realize that the offers do not exist and lose their money, OFAC said. In conjunction with the sanctions, OFAC issued an alert warning that perpetrators of timeshare fraud may falsely claim to represent OFAC to appear legitimate and further their fraud.
As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property of the designated persons located in the U.S. or held by U.S. persons is 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 generally prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons unless authorized by an OFAC-issued general or specific license, or exempt. OFAC further warned that “U.S. persons may face civil or criminal penalties for violations of E.O. 14059 and the Kingpin Act.”
OFAC issues supplemental guidance on humanitarian sanctions exceptions
On February 27, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued supplemental guidance for the provision of humanitarian assistance. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last December OFAC implemented a carveout from the asset freeze provisions of UN sanctions programs by issuing or amending several general licenses to ease the delivery of humanitarian aid and ensure a baseline of authorizations for the provision of humanitarian support across many sanctions programs. The 2023 fact sheet provides information for the U.S. government, international organizations and entities, nongovernmental organizations, persons involved in the distribution of food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices, and financial institutions and other service providers who support or facilitate these transactions. The action reflects “Treasury’s work to limit the unintended impact of sanctions by providing greater consistency and clarity across U.S. sanctions programs to help legitimate humanitarian assistance and related trade reach at-risk populations through transparent financial channels.”
OFAC sanctions Mexican arms trafficker for supplying weapons to cartel
On February 28, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 14059 against a Mexican national for his role in providing, or having attempted to provide, financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG). The CJNG is also designated under E.O. 14059. According to OFAC, the sanctions are part of a whole-of-government effort to combat global threats posed by illicit drug trafficking into the U.S. The agency stressed it will continue to coordinate with federal government partners and foreign counterparts to target and pursue accountability for foreign illicit drug actors. As a result of the sanctions, the designated individual’s property located in the U.S. or held by U.S. persons is 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 generally prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons unless authorized by an OFAC-issued general or specific license, or exempt. OFAC further warned that “U.S. persons may face civil or criminal penalties for violations of E.O. 14059 and the Kingpin Act.”
OFAC sanctions persons supporting North Korea
On March 1, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions against three entities and two individuals for their roles in illicitly generating revenue to support the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). According to OFAC, two of the sanctioned entities are designated pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13687 “for being agencies, instrumentalities, or controlled entities of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.” One of the entities is a subordinate to the Government of North Korea, and is used by the DPRK government to earn foreign currency, collect intelligence, and provide cover status for intelligence operatives. The other entity—a subordinate to the DPRK Ministry of People’s Armed Forces (which was previously sanctioned by OFAC)—allegedly generated funds for the DPRK government for decades by conducting art and construction projects on behalf of regimes throughout the Middle East and Africa. The two individuals are sanctioned, pursuant to E.O. 13810, for being North Korean persons who have generated revenue for the DPRK government or the Workers’ Party of Korea. These individuals, OFAC said, established the third sanctioned entity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to earn revenue from construction and statue-building projects with local governments.
As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property of the sanctioned persons that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC, as well as “any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons.” Persons that engage in certain transactions with the designated individuals and entities may themselves be exposed to sanctions, and “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.”
FinCEN warns financial institutions of surge in mail theft-related check fraud
On February 27, FinCEN issued an alert to financial institutions on the nationwide surge in check fraud schemes targeting the U.S. mail. Mail theft-related check fraud, FinCEN explained, generally relates to the fraudulent negotiation of checks stolen from the U.S. postal service, and represents one of the most significant money laundering threats to the U.S. The alert is intended to ensure financial institutions file suspicious activity reports (SARs) that appropriately identify and report suspected check fraud schemes possibly linked to mail theft. The alert highlighted red flags to help financial institutions identify and report suspicious activity, and reminded financial institutions of their Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) reporting requirements. According to FinCEN, BSA reporting for check fraud has increased significantly over the past three years. “In 2021, financial institutions filed over 350,000 [SARs] to FinCEN to report potential check fraud, a 23 percent increase over the number of check fraud-related SARs filed in 2020,” the agency said, adding that in 2022, SARs related to check fraud reached over 680,000. When suspecting this type of fraud, financial institutions are advised to refer customers to the United States Postal Inspection Service in addition to filing a SAR.
OFAC issues more Russian sanctions and metals and mining determination
On February 24, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced significant measures targeting the metals and mining sector of the Russian Federation economy under Executive Order 14024. OFAC also imposed sanctions on 22 individuals and 83 entities to further isolate Russia from the international economy and hinder the country’s access to capital, materials, technology, and military support sustaining its war against Ukraine. (See also OFAC’s fact sheet on sanctions measures taken during the past year.) According to OFAC, the designations target “over 30 third-country individuals and companies connected to Russia’s sanctions evasion efforts, including those related to arms trafficking and illicit finance.” The agency added that “[w]hile Russian banks representing over 80 percent of total Russian banking sector assets are already subject to U.S and international sanctions,” it is now “designating over a dozen financial institutions in Russia, including one of the top-ten largest banks by asset value.” OFAC explained that sanctioned actors are known to turn to smaller banks and wealth-management firms to evade sanctions and access the international financial system. As a result, several wealth management-related entities and associated individuals playing key roles in Russia’s financial services sector have been sanctioned. OFAC also issued a determination (effective February 24), in consultation with the Department of State, allowing for sanctions to be imposed on any individual or entity determined to operate or have operated in the metals and mining sector of the Russian Federation economy.
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. Further, “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 an OFAC-issued general or specific license, or exempt.
The announcement further noted that additional measures have been taken by the Departments of State and Commerce, as well as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in coordination with allies and G7 partners.
In conjunction with the sanctions, OFAC issued several Russia-related general licenses (see GLs 8F, 13D, 60, and 61), as well as five associated frequently asked questions.
FATF suspends Russia’s task force membership
On February 24, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international standard-setting body on illicit finance, suspended the Russian Federation’s membership, saying the country’s “actions unacceptably run counter to the FATF core principles aiming to promote security, safety, and the integrity of the global financial system.” This marks the first time the FATF has ever suspended a country from its membership. Despite the suspension, the FATF emphasized that Russia “remains accountable for its obligation to implement the FATF Standards” and “must continue to meet its financial obligations.” According to the statement, the FATF will continue to monitor the situation and will consider whether to lift or modify these restrictions during each of its plenary meetings.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issued a statement following the suspension. Explaining that “FATF members lead the global effort on combatting money laundering and the financing of terrorism and proliferation and members are expected to uphold and promote core principles that safeguard the global financial system,” Yellen stressed that “Russia’s ongoing war undermines the principles of international cooperation and mutual respect that underpin the mandate of the FATF.” She further commented that the “United States commends the FATF’s historic decision to suspend Russia’s membership in the body,” and added that “Russia’s disregard for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is at odds with the FATF’s foundational values of international cooperation and the rule of law. Further, Russia’s dealings with suppliers of last resort such as Iran and North Korea, its government-driven efforts to evade international sanctions and export controls, and other activities … make it a haven for illicit finance—the very thing the FATF works to combat.”
OFAC announces sanctions tied to Mexican drug cartel
On February 22, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions, pursuant to Executive Order 14059, against six Mexican nationals involved in the methamphetamine and fentanyl trade, along with six related Mexico-based entities. According to OFAC, the sanctioned network’s actions aid a Mexican drug cartel’s facilitation of fentanyl and other drugs trafficked into the United States. OFAC coordinated with the Mexican government, the FBI, and the DEA to take this action. 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. U.S. persons are also generally prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons, and “may face civil or criminal penalties for violations of E.O. 14059.” Additionally, OFAC warned that “persons that engage in certain transactions with the individuals and entities designated today may themselves be exposed to sanctions or subject to an enforcement action.”