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March 21, 2011

FinCEN proposed new rule addresses money-laundering risks in prepaid products

While prepaid payment products still represent a small percentage of today's electronic payments, their use is rapidly growing. According to the 2010 Federal Reserve Payments Study, the number of prepaid card transactions increased 21.5 percent each year from 2006 to 2009. Most prepaid payments are enabled by plastic cards, but today's technology can enable the same payment functionality in other form factors, including mobile phones.

As the market for these prepaid products continues to develop and grow, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has been watchful of their potential money-laundering risk exposure and issued a proposed rule addressing various kinds of prepaid access devices. In its proposed rulemaking notice, FinCEN announced that the rule would cover not only cards but also such access devices as mobile phones, key fobs, and any other device that can serve as a portal to funds paid for in advance and allow a consumer to retrieve or transfer these funds.

Prepaid access devices and money laundering risks
Many of the same factors that make prepaid access devices attractive to consumers can make them vulnerable to criminal activity. For instance, the ease with which these devices can be obtained along with the potential for anonymity—which is the case with nonreloadable open-loop cards, for example—as well as the ease with which money can be loaded onto them can make them potential money-laundering vehicles.

To help identify potential risks related to prepaid access devices, FinCEN formed a subcommittee within their Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group (BSAAG). The subcommittee has identified numerous risks, such as funding with cash from stolen credit cards and virtual money cards that allow individuals without a bank account to access illicit cash via ATMs globally. Some high-profile criminal activities have also surfaced, exposing some of these potential risks.

Because some products are perceived to be less likely than others to be used for money laundering, FinCEN has excluded certain prepaid access devices from its rulemaking, including payroll cards, government benefit cards, heath care access cards, closed-loop cards, and products that allow access amounts less than $1,000.

Disrupting, detecting, and deterring the illicit flow of funds
Disrupting the flow of funds can create a less-than-ideal environment for criminals attempting to conceal the sources of their illicit funds. FinCEN's proposed rule is one way to accomplish this disruption. By implementing additional systemic safeguards and filling gaps in the prepaid environment with stronger regulatory controls, the agency hopes to make it more difficult for criminals to use prepaid payments products for illicit purposes.

Ultimately, the goal of the proposed rule is to enhance the regulatory framework for prepaid access devices while finding ways to promote development and growth in the prepaid industry and discourage wrongdoers from misusing prepaid products. For now, FinCEN's final rule is pending release, but if it is adopted as proposed, it would expand Bank Secrecy Act compliance obligations to prepaid access devices beyond plastic prepaid cards to include emerging prepaid products.

Photo of Ana Cavazos-WrightBy Ana Cavazos-Wright, senior payments risk analyst in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

March 21, 2011 in crime, fraud, money laundering, payments risk, prepaid | Permalink

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Comments

Ana,

My research suggests that these proposed rule changes will have a significant negative impact on the prepaid market and yet I am unable to find anyone in the prepaid industry that believes these proposed rules will prevent most of the crimes you identified. In particular the "high-profile criminal activity" you identified is explicitly not prevented by these proposed rules since payroll cards are excluded.

If FinCEN were to document how these proposed rules would prevent specific criminal activities, I think it is likely the prepaid industry could prove FinCEN wrong. More importantly, if FinCEN were to work directly with the industry, I am positive more effective solutions could be identified that would cause far less disruption to the prepaid market.

Preventing disruption is important because these prepaid products are the best hope for providing low cost access to financial services for the unbanked and under served. Even as the FDIC decries the lack of affordable financial services for Low & Moderate Income families, FinCEN proposes new rules that I believe will greatly increase the cost associated with delivering financial services to that same audience -- but likely with no benefit to law enforcement.

Posted by: Timothy Sloane | March 22, 2011 at 02:32 PM

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