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May 19, 2014

Choking on the Cost of Risk Management

In March 2013, the Department of Justice (DOJ), joined by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), quietly launched the program “Operation Choke Point.” The program’s objective is to cut off fraudsters’ access to consumer bank accounts by restricting—or choking off—their access to the banking system. Normally the fraudsters would be the only ones complaining about officials trying to shut down their business, but this program is also creating new risk management challenges for the banking industry.

While critics of the program readily admit that criminal activities should be fully investigated and prosecuted, they contend that the program has imposed a wider, “chilling,” effect on financial institutions and their third-party payment processors. A number of financial institutions have said that the operational, compliance, and risk costs associated with the increased scrutiny outweigh the benefits of such high-risk but legal business account relationships and can result in their termination.

The agencies defend their actions, stating that the “know-your-customer” and “know-your customer’s customers” requirements have been in place for some time. They say they are targeting only processors and financial institutions that are blatantly exchanging these requirements for due diligence and compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) for a sizable fee revenue opportunity.

By September 2013, the DOJ had issued 50 subpoenas to financial institutions and their processors citing the BSA’s requirements for a financial institution to monitor the activities of its customers and its customer’s customers for suspicious activity. In its first enforcement action of the program, in early 2014, the DOJ entered into an agreement with a holding company of a North Carolina community bank for $1.2 million in civil penalties and with certain restrictions with regards to its future processor relationships. The DOJ alleged that the holding company’s management knowingly ignored numerous warning signs that some of its processing customers had clients engaged in illegal business practices, including internet-based payday lending, gambling, and even Ponzi schemes, all to generate large amounts of account service charges and fees. A U.S. District Court judge approved the agreement on April 25 this year. However, the bank didn’t admit to anything in the DOJ complaint nor to any liability.

To help financial institutions better deal with the risk management requirements that Operation Choke Point highlights, a number of associations have developed materials or issued guidelines. An earlier Portals and Rails post discussed the reminders from NACHA on the know-your-customer’s-customer rules and the proposed rules about return item limits that could potentially signal fraudulent or deceptive practices. The Electronic Transactions Association (ETA) has recently published a best-practices guide for processor relationship onboarding and continued oversight. This document, “Guidelines on Merchant and ISO Underwriting and Risk Monitoring,” is available to ETA members only, but the organization has given us permission to make the guide’s executive summary available.

Portals and Rails is interested in your thoughts on Operation Choke Point and the response by some banks, and we pose this question: Are banks properly pricing their services to the business that requires such intense risk management measures?

Photo of Deborah ShawBy David Lott, a retail payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed


May 19, 2014 in banks and banking, law enforcement, regulations, risk management | Permalink

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