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On January 25, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an alert to financial institutions on potential investments in the U.S. commercial real estate sector by sanctioned Russian elites, oligarchs, their family members, and the entities through which they act. The alert provides a list of possible red flags and typologies regarding attempted sanctions evasion in the commercial real estate sector and emphasizes financial institutions’ Bank Secrecy Act reporting obligations. The alert noted that banks frequently work with market participants who seek financing for commercial real estate projects, and that banks have customer due diligence obligations to verify the beneficial owners of legal entity customers. Specifically, the alert noted that “banks therefore may be in a position to identify and report suspicious activities associated with sanctioned Russian elites and their proxies including [politically exposed persons], among banks’ [commercial real estate]-related customers.” According to FinCEN, the recent alert builds on FinCEN’s March 2022 alert identifying real estate, luxury goods, and other high value assets involving sanctioned Russian and elites, and is the fourth alert issued by FinCEN on potential Russian illicit financial activity since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 (covered by InfoBytes here).
On January 13, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an alert advising financial institutions on how to detect and report suspicious financial activity that may be related to human smuggling along the southwest border of the United States. Highlighting that human smuggling is one of the eight Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism National Priorities identified by FinCEN, the agency pointed out that human smuggling along the southwest border generates an estimated $2 billion to $6 billion in yearly revenue for illicit actors. The alert, which builds on FinCEN’s 2020 and 2014 human smuggling and human trafficking advisories (covered by InfoBytes here and here), provides trends, typologies, and red flag indicators to help financial institutions better identify and file suspicious activity reports potentially related to such activity. “Financial institutions need to know that their vigilance and prompt Bank Secrecy Act reporting matters—it aids investigations tied to human smuggling and transnational organized crime, and can ultimately save lives,” FinCEN Acting Director Himamauli Das said in the announcement.
On January 4, NYDFS issued a consent order against a cryptocurrency trading platform for engaging in alleged violations of New York virtual currency, anti-money laundering, transaction monitoring, and cybersecurity regulations. According to the consent order, in 2020, NYDFS found significant deficiencies across the respondent’s compliance program, including its Know-Your Customer/Customer Due Diligence (KYC/CDD) procedures, Transaction Monitoring System (TMS), OFAC screening program, and AML risk assessments. As a result of these findings, the respondent agreed to improve its BSA/AML and OFAC compliance programs, including engaging an independent consultant to develop a remediation plan and improve its compliance program.
In 2021, NYDFS launched an investigation to determine whether the respondent’s compliance deficiencies had resulted in any legal violations. The investigation found “substantial lapses in [the respondent’s] KYC/CDD program, its TMS, and in its AML and OFAC sanctions controls systems, as well as issues concerning [the respondent’s] retention of books and records, and with respect to meeting certain of its reporting obligations to the Department.” NYDFS noted that in late 2020 and 2021, the respondent took steps to remediate the issues identified by the Department and the independent consultant; however, substantial weaknesses remained, and its compliance system was inadequate to handle the growing volume of the respondent’s business.
Under the terms of the consent order, the respondent must pay a $50 million civil penalty to NYDFS and invest $50 million in its compliance program. Additionally, an independent third party will continue to work with the respondent for another year, which may be extended at the Department’s sole discretion. NYDFS noted that the respondent has already taken steps to build a more effective and robust compliance program under the supervision of NYDFS and the NYDFS-appointed independent monitor. According to the respondent’s press release, the company “has taken substantial measures to address these historical shortcomings” and “remains committed to being a leader and role model in the crypto space, including partnering with regulators when it comes to compliance and other areas.”
On December 22, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued a Financial Trend Analysis on the financial activity of Russian oligarchs. In the analysis, FinCEN examined Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) reports from March 2022 to October 2022 involving Russian oligarchs, high-ranking officials, and sanctioned individuals. FinCEN identified 454 reports detailing suspicious activity and reported that some of the trends in the data by Russian oligarchs included: (i) the movement of funds around the start of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022; (ii) the purchase of high-value goods or property in 2022; and (iii) based on the movement of funds from accounts in Russia to other countries, an indication of potential changes in longstanding oligarch-linked financial flows related to U.S. properties and companies. FinCEN noted that 78 percent of the 454 BSA reports were filed by U.S.-based depository institutions. Other types of financial institutions—such as holding companies or financial technology companies—submitted roughly 19 percent of reports, mainly on suspicious electronic funds transfers or wire transfers and suspicions concerning the source of funds.
On December 20, the CFTC announced a settlement with a registered futures commission merchant (respondent) for allegedly violating the Commodity Exchange Act, Commission regulations, and Bank Secrecy Act compliance requirements. According to the CFTC, the respondent allegedly “failed to implement an adequate anti-money laundering  program, particularly as applied to a futures and options trading account controlled by [a customer],” and “failed to implement risk-based limits concerning trading by [a customer].” The CFTC also alleged supervisory and recordkeeping failures stemming from the inadequate anti-money laundering program. The respondent is ordered to pay a $6.5 million civil money penalty and undertake certain remedial measures relating to the violations.
On December 9, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued Notice 2022-1 to further extend the time for certain Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) filings in light of the agency’s March 2016 notice of proposed rulemaking, which proposed to revise the Bank Secrecy Act’s implementing regulations regarding FBARs. (See previous InfoBytes coverage on the 2016 NPR here.) Specifically, one of the proposed amendments seeks to “expand and clarify the exemptions for certain U.S. persons with signature or other authority over foreign financial accounts,” but with no financial interest, as outlined in FinCEN Notice 2021-1 issued December 9, 2021. FinCEN noted that because the proposal has not been finalized, it is further extending the filing due date to April 15, 2024, for individuals who previously qualified for a filing due date extension under Notice 2021-1. All other individuals must submit FBAR filings by April 15, 2023.
Senators request information from California bank on its relationship with collapsed crypto exchange
On December 5, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), John Kennedy (R-LA), and Roger Marshall (R-KS) asked the CEO of a California-based bank for information regarding its relationship with several cryptocurrency firms founded by the CEO of a now-collapsed crypto exchange. In their letter, the senators pressed the CEO for an explanation for why the bank failed to monitor for and report suspicious transactions to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, and asked for information about how deposits it was holding on behalf of the collapsed exchange and related firm were being handled. The senators stressed that the bank has a legal responsibility under the Bank Secrecy Act to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program that may have flagged suspicious activity. “Your bank's involvement in the transfer of [the collapsed exchange’s] customer funds to [the related firm] reveals what appears to be an egregious failure of your bank’s responsibility to monitor for and report suspicious financial activity carried out by its clients,” the letter said. The senators asked the bank to respond to a series of questions by December 19.
On November 25, the FDIC released a list of administrative enforcement actions taken against banks and individuals in October. During the month, the FDIC made public ten orders consisting of “one consent order; one amended and restated consent order; one personal cease and desist order; three orders to pay civil money penalties; two Section 19 orders; and two orders terminating consent orders.” Among the orders is an order to pay a civil money penalty imposed against a Mississippi-based bank related to 128 alleged violations of the Flood Disaster Protection Act. Among other things, the FDIC claimed that the bank failed to obtain the required flood insurance or obtain an adequate amount of insurance coverage, at or before loan origination, for all structures in a flood zone. The order requires the payment of a $320,500 civil money penalty.
The FDIC also issued a consent order to a New York-based bank, which alleged that the bank had unsafe or unsound banking practices relating to weaknesses in the Bank’s Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) Program. The bank neither admitted nor denied the alleged violations but agreed to, among other things, increase its supervision, direction, and oversight of AML/CFT personnel and its AML/CFT program.
On November 1, FinCEN reported that ransomware continues to pose a significant threat to U.S. infrastructure, businesses, and the public, with ransomware-related Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) filings in 2021 accounting for nearly $1.2 billion. Issued pursuant to the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020, FinCEN’s Financial Trend Analysis examines ransomware activities for calendar year 2021, with a particular focus on ransomware trends in BSA data from July-December 2021. According to FinCEN, reported ransomware-related incidents have substantially increased from 2020, with roughly 75 percent of these incidents reported during the second half of 2021 emanating from or connected to actors in Russia. Highlights from the report include: (i) the number and total U.S. dollar value for ransomware-related incidents during 2021 far exceeds data for any previous year, with FinCEN reporting a 188 percent increase from 2020 to 2021 (possibly reflecting either an increase of ransomware-related incidents or improved reporting and detection); (ii) an average of 132 and a median of 136 ransomware-related incidents per month were reported during the review period (Treasury’s October 2021 measures to combat ransomware — covered by InfoBytes here — and potentially associated reporting obligations may have contributed to the overall rise in 2021 filings, FinCEN noted); and (iii) of the 793 ransomware-related incidents reported during the second half of 2021, 594 (roughly 75 percent) pertained to Russia-related variants.
The same day, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo hosted participants from 36 countries during the second International Counter Ransomware Initiative Summit where attendees examined the challenges presented by ransomware and discussed the U.S.’s whole-of-government approach for responding to serious threats posed by bad actors.
On October 20, the OCC released a list of recent enforcement actions taken against national banks, federal savings associations, and individuals currently and formerly affiliated with such entities. Included among the actions is a cease and desist order against an New York branch of an India-based bank for allegedly engaging in Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) program violations. The bank allegedly “failed to establish and maintain a reasonably designed BSA/AML compliance program ('BSA/AML Program') that adequately covers the required BSA/AML Program components. Deficiencies include (i) a weak system of internal controls; (ii) a weak BSA Officer function; and (iii) an insufficient training program.” The order requires the bank to, among other things, submit a BSA/AML action plan and develop a written suspicious activity monitoring and reporting program.