March 28, 2011
The nitty gritty of money transfer operators (MTOs)
When a friend of mine was travelling across Cambodia last year, he had a common, yet frightening, experience of the solo voyager: his wallet was stolen. Luckily, despite the seeming remoteness of his beach vacation, there were several Western Union agents in Sihanouk Ville. His parents were able to send him enough cash to finish out his trip. While losing his identification was still stomach-gnawing, he at least had the money to pay for lodging, food, and transportation. The global reach of money transmitters offers a clear value to travelers and migrants, but may also be valued by those wishing to exploit the companies for more nefarious purposes.
The reach of MTOs across the globe is a remarkable business accomplishment. Western Union or MoneyGram agents can be in from the smallest American town to the remotest corners of the globe. Western Union currently boasts 445,000 locations worldwide, and MoneyGram offers another 227,000. This already expansive agent network is quickly growing, with Western Union adding 150,000 locations since 2007. These MTOs serve the financial needs primarily of migrants—a significant portion of the worldwide population—offering not only money transfers but also ancillary services like prepaid cards, money orders, and walk-in bill payment. Immigrants in any given country are often unbanked or underbanked, yet often need to send cash remittances to family back home. MTOs are able to charge a premium for services that customers see as reliable, fast, and private.
But how exactly are these international money transfers executed? In Western Union's case, agents take cash from remitters and enter confirmation of cash receipt into Western Union's messaging system. The agents also collect data on both the sender and recipient. On the receiving end, the recipient in most cases presents photo identification at his or her local agent to pick up the cash. Western Union net settles with agents at the end of the day via ACH, if that service is available in the country, or by wire otherwise. Western Union has some intraday credit exposure to the transaction, as they commit to reimbursing the receiving agent regardless of the sender's solvency at the end of the day. Therefore, a Western Union transfer consists of three different streams: the flow of information between the sending and receiving agents via their messaging system, the separate communication between sending and receiving customers, and the final flow of funds between Western Union and the agents. MoneyGram's system operates similarly, but typically at a somewhat lower price point.
What are the risks?
The primary concern of regulators and law enforcement vis-à-vis MTOs is the risk of illicit use—bad actors taking advantage of these global networks to launder money and finance terrorism. Unlike banks that establish long-term account relationships with their clients, MTOs offer one-off transactions with more limited customer data. Consequently, MTOs may lack the relationship-level depth of customer data that banks have access to for risk mitigation purposes. Western Union has proactively led anti-money laundering (AML) compliance efforts in response to such fears. In 2010 testimony to Congress, Western Union reported spending more than $35 million annually on AML compliance. Although MTOs are global in scope, regulatory oversight is inherently limited to specific jurisdictions, and therefore the firms must interact with many different regulators and law enforcement agencies. MTOs currently operate under a complex structure of state, federal, and foreign regulation. Western Union has advocated for more consolidated regulation at the federal level, which may be in the cards, as the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will have jurisdiction over MTOs. Of greater concern may be unregistered MTOs, which operate outside the rule of law, and against whom FinCEN regularly brings enforcement.
Another concern facing MTO regulators is fraud. Social engineers sometimes use MTOs to try to part victims from their money. For example, a scam artist might convince a victim that he or she has won a cash prize but must first send a money transfer to cover the taxes before collecting the winnings. Of course, after the target sends the irreversible transfer, he or she never sees any winnings. We have previously covered MoneyGram's remedial efforts in this area, and Western Union calls out this risk as a special concern in their annual report:
The remittance industry has come under increasing scrutiny from government regulators and others in connection with its ability to prevent its services from being abused by people seeking to defraud others.... [T]he ingenuity of criminal fraudsters, combined with the potential susceptibility to fraud by consumers during economically difficult times, make the prevention of consumer fraud a significant and challenging problem. (p. 27)
The global ubiquity that lies at the heart of MTOs' value proposition is also a key risk factor for illicit use and fraud, as criminals may leverage the systems to divert illicit gains outside the jurisdiction of their crimes. While some companies have recognized this risk and actively worked to mitigate it, others may need regulatory encouragement. How can we most effectively monitor such expansive entities? How can industry and regulators better collaborate to bring unregistered MTOs into compliance with existing laws? These questions will be increasingly important as the CFPB moves to more rationally and comprehensively supervise this dynamic industry.
By Jennifer C. Windh, a payments risk analyst in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
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