Portals and Rails

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Portals and Rails, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Portals and Rails and look forward to collaborating with you.

July 29, 2013


Suspicious Activity Reports: What the Numbers Show

Initially intended to help law enforcement identify individuals and organizations involved in money laundering and terrorist financing, Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) filings are also used to help detect activities related to consumer fraud and identity theft. Depository institutions (DIs) and money services businesses (MSBs) together file about 98 percent of all SARs submitted annually to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Industry groups are constantly working to educate SAR filers about the various types of activities that they should document so these activities can be properly tracked. FinCEN recently updated its statistics to include SAR activity in 2012, and the summary volumes are shown in the chart below. The Retail Payments Risk Forum believes that an ongoing educational effort of customers, as well as DI employees, is a vital element in recognizing and mitigating fraud in our payments system. As part of that effort, I think there would be benefit in examining the shifts among the different SAR activities and gain an understanding as to possible reasons for these shifts.

SAR Filings by DIs and MSBs: 2013-12

As the above chart shows, the number of SARs filed by DIs has risen steadily over the last two years. SARs from MSBs, on the other hand, dropped 14 percent from 2011 after seeing an average annual increase of 15 percent over the previous two years. So why the ups and downs?

From a pure numbers standpoint, the answer to the question lies in the details of the activities that can trigger a SAR. In the case of SAR filings from DIs, for example, 2012 saw a dramatic increase in identity theft and check fraud filings, while mortgage loan fraud SARs dropped. This shift is explained by the increased diligence being placed on mortgage loans and the alarming growth of identity theft and check fraud incidents. By contrast, SAR filings from MSBs showed a substantial decrease in the category where the person reduced the amount of money order or traveler's check purchase to avoid having to complete a funds transfer record (but still generating a SAR). One wonders whether this reduction represents progress in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing, or have the individuals engaged in these illegal activities changed their money handling tactics by performing lower dollar value transactions to avoid suspicion and identification?

Every federal judicial district has a SAR review team. This team of regulators and federal and local law enforcement reviews SARs to determine whether they need to initiate new investigations or supplement the filings to existing cases. The efforts of these teams illustrates how more comprehensive reporting, improved data analysis, and stronger monitoring capabilities can help detect and address fraud and abuse within our payments system. FinCEN publishes a semiannual report—Trends, Tips & Issues—that provides a summary of key findings from the teams' reviews of SARs. These reports let involved parties know how they can use the information to provide greater protection to potential victims of fraud. We encourage you to read copies of FinCEN's reports to better understand current fraud trends so you can educate your employees and customers.

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

July 29, 2013 in money laundering, regulations, regulators | Permalink

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July 08, 2013


Money Mules: Unwitting Accomplices?

Recent news articles about the two major ATM cash-out frauds that yielded $45 million for the perpetrators have noted a critical element of the global crime—the extensive network of criminals that performed thousands of cash withdrawals over a few hours at ATMs in approximately 24 countries. Known as "money mules," these individuals help transport or launder stolen money and merchandise in exchange for a small share of the ill-gotten gains.

The mules in the ATM cash-out scheme were willing participants, but in many cases, individuals serving the role of a money mule may not be aware of their criminal involvement and may even themselves become victims of fraud. The most common tactics for enlisting the help of unknowing money mules are posting work-at-home advertisements on major legitimate employment websites, purchasing pop-up ads, or sending e-mails.

Earlier recruiting efforts were easy to spot because they often used poor grammar or spelling, were not specific in describing the job, and usually based the hiring company outside the United States. More recently, recruitment efforts have used well-written ads with high-quality graphics. These ads often stress the convenience of the position for the worker and the significant earnings potential. When hired, the individual is sometimes engaged as a mystery shopper or in some similar function to make the transfer of money or goods seem normal to the business operation. Some schemes initially engage the person in conducting legitimate transactions with the goal of developing a level of comfort for the individual with the process and the promise of bigger, more lucrative transactions to come in the future.

As with many crimes involving multi-level organizations, it is not the masterminds but the money mules who are most often apprehended. They are the ones whom law enforcement officers can locate relatively easily because they are the ones who provide their financial account information or shipping address as part of the transaction. Unknowing money mules risk criminal prosecution, financial loss, and smearing of their reputations. It’s also possible that they will themselves experience identity theft or fraud against their financial accounts because they may have provided sensitive personal information during the recruitment process.

As cybercrimes continue to spread, the mule recruitment efforts will expand and probably become more sophisticated. Individuals must exercise safer computer security practices, and financial institutions, consumer protection agencies, and law enforcement must continue to provide education about this type of scheme to help increase everyone’s ability to detect such fraud. Not only will early detection help prevent individuals from becoming unwilling victims, but also it will aid in the investigation of these criminal efforts by law enforcement.

Brian Krebs (KrebsonSecurity) has a good article, which includes a money-mule training video, providing more information about this type of crime to help individuals avoid getting caught up in one of these schemes. We welcome your suggestions on how the educational effort can be strengthened.

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

July 8, 2013 in ATM fraud, identity theft, money laundering | Permalink

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June 03, 2013


Do Digital Currencies Need Bank Secrecy Act Regulations?

Nearly two years ago, a Portals and Rails post looked at digital currencies and posed the question, "Will the use of alternative currencies gain popularity in the criminal world?" It appears that the answer to the question is "yes." According to the recent indictment of a digital currency provider, the currency under question "was designed to give criminals a way to move money earned from credit card fraud, online Ponzi schemes, child pornography and other crimes without being detected by law enforcement," ultimately building up a $6 billion money laundering operation.

At the heart of the issue with this particular digital currency is its anonymous nature. Payment instruments that provide anonymity do attract the criminal element. Anonymity is a major reason cash remains king when it comes to payments for illicit activities. The anonymity that prepaid cards provided in their earlier years attracted the criminal element, which ultimately resulted in regulators attaching Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) regulations to these instruments.

There is no doubt that digital currency has benefits over paper and coins. The convenience of not having to lug around paper and coins is appealing to me, as is the fact that I wouldn't feel the need to scrub my hands after handling digital currency since it's no secret that paper money and coins are dirty. I am all for the success of digital currencies and can't wait for them to become more mainstream. But I believe that as long as any digital currency continues to support anonymity, it will be difficult for that to happen.

While regulation can stifle innovation, I believe that BSA/AML regulation of digital currencies could help increase the adoption of this type of payment instrument by the mainstream. One need look no further than the prepaid card industry to understand the potential impact. Many factors have played into that industry’s phenomenal growth rate, but the BSA/AML regulatory requirements also played a role by providing a credibility to prepaid cards that did not exist in their infancy.

What are your thoughts on the need for BSA/AML regulation of digital currencies?

Douglas A. KingBy Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

June 3, 2013 in cybercrime, emerging payments, money laundering, regulations | Permalink

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Great Post.
In my opinion all e-currencies need to be regulated, specially the more popularly used ones. It will be sad to see another one going down like LR.

Posted by: Bhagesh Nair | June 04, 2013 at 04:48 PM

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January 28, 2013


Do GPR Prepaid Cards Pose Significant Money Laundering Threats?

When it comes to laundering proceeds from illicit activities, criminals have historically had a number of financial instruments and methodologies at their disposal. These choices have ranged from payment products tied to demand deposit accounts such as checks, wires, and debit/ATM card transactions to money transfers via money transmitters. The birth of general purpose reloadable (GPR) prepaid cards in the early 1990s created yet another payment instrument that could potentially be used to clean dirty money.

Although no payment instrument—GPR prepaid cards included—is completely immune to money laundering, the payments industry can adopt risk measures to mitigate the attractiveness of these cards to criminals. But what makes a payment choice attractive to money launderers? Criminals generally seek the fastest method to move their ill-gotten proceeds the furthest away from their illegal activities. Ultimately, they want to distance themselves and their financial gain from the crime in the quickest way possible. Anonymity, accessibility, immediate liquidity, and transportability of funds are all payment characteristics that a money launderer finds attractive.

The Retail Payments Risk Forum dove into the regulatory environment and risk management practice of the GPR prepaid card industry, and wrote up findings in a paper available on the Atlanta Fed's website. Among the paper's findings is that, as GPR prepaid cards have grown in popularity and come under increased scrutiny by regulators, significant regulatory measures and industry-wide adopted practices have greatly reduced, but not eliminated, their money laundering risks. And while U.S. regulators and the card industry have made great strides with anti-money laundering measures, GPR prepaid cards issued internationally do not necessarily face the same stringent risk environment, so they pose significant money laundering risks.

 

For more details on the money laundering risk environment for GPR prepaid cards, read the paper.

Douglas A. KingBy Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

January 28, 2013 in fraud, money laundering, prepaid | Permalink

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Interesting paper. The DoJ paper and rebuttal go into greater depth on the actual risks of GPR's in money laundering.

GPR's are not really like any other financial tool. Most are tied to a bank DDA with explicit account opening procedures.

What would be interesting is an analysis of recent GPR innovations which allow individuals "deposit-only" capability. Basically these are simple pieces of plastic that allow ground level drug dealers to deposit cash sales into a master account any where in the country.

Of course, it could be a parent funding a child.

Posted by: CMS | January 28, 2013 at 09:31 AM

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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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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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November 29, 2010


Prepaid in the mobile channel: Balancing financial inclusion and risk management

Payment services are coming to your mobile device—even though consumer adoption remains low in the United States, as are near-term prospects in light of reports about security concerns. Financial institutions, carriers, and others are experimenting with trial products and services to try to understand and respond to consumer demand for mobile services. Here in the U.S., the mobile device is emerging as an access device for legacy payment mechanisms like credit and debit cards or deposit account transfers. A viable payment mechanism for consumers to access via the mobile channel may be stored value, using the cell phone instead of a plastic card as the form factor. With the recent economic downturn, prepaid is emerging as an alternative to paper-based payments, allowing some consumers with limited access to credit to continue to participate in the electronic economy.

Some prepaid products carry potential risks because of the anonymity associated with them. The question we face is, how will we balance the potential risks of identity theft and money laundering as prepaid services shift to the mobile channel?

Recent growth in prepaid
Prepaid cards are growing in popularity, especially with the advent of reloadable, open-loop payroll cards that are branded by the major card networks and accepted at ATMs and merchants' points-of-sale. (Open-loop cards are those that consumers can redeem at different establishments. Closed-loop cards are those that the consumer can redeem at a specific establishment, which is also the issuing provider.) Since many carriers have offered prepaid airtime plans for years, the transition to a prepaid "mobile wallet" may be a seamless one. The mobile wallet is expected to operate the same way as a prepaid card, with monetary value loaded and stored on it. Because stored-value cards allow unbanked and underbanked consumers to participate in the electronic economy, their use is growing.

Open loop cards growing faster than closed loop
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Growing population of underbanked consumers
Financially mainstream consumers in the U.S. already have a multitude of safe, secure, and reliable payment choices, so they have little incentive to use their cell phones to access those payments. But a growing segment of the population is underserved by mainstream financial services. ("Underserved" individuals are those who may have a checking or savings account but rely on alternative financial services such as nonbank money orders, check-cashing services, payday loans, or pawn shops.) The increase of the underserved is in part a reflection of the weak economy, high unemployment, and reduced access to credit for many consumers. The FDIC estimates that 7.7 percent of U.S. households are unbanked and an additional 17.9 percent are underbanked.

It might be useful to compare the U.S. unbanked market to those in other countries where mobile payments and banking initiatives are in various stages of deployment.

Statistics on the unbanked populations in developed and emerging markets
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Emerging markets, such as sub-Saharan countries and India, with higher populations of consumers without access to traditional financial services are experiencing rapid adoption of mobile financial services. For example, the success of M-PESA, a mobile phone-based financial service offered by Kenya's Safaricom, has become a business model for other developing countries. In the three years since its inception, M-PESA's customer base has reached 9 million users.

Growth of M-PESA customer base
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Improving security and risk management of prepaid mobile
A number of improvements have been made in recent years in the way some prepaid cards—like payroll cards, for example—can be monitored. Open-loop cards that are branded by the major networks allow the owner to contact the issuing payment service provider if the payment card or device is lost or stolen. And many prepaid issuers will provide periodic statements detailing balances and fees. Still, concerns remain with gift cards and other closed-loop products that may not include the security features of the open-loop cards. In response to these concerns, FinCEN's proposed rulemaking should provide the industry with guidance on how to exercise oversight and control in prepaid transactions.

With respect to the mobile handset, technology is changing rapidly and the potential for improved security in the handset for authentication and identity credentialing looks promising. Given the ability for prepaid issuers to tighten the controls in card registration processes, the mobile device may be a more secure channel than today's card-based prepaid alternatives. In that case, we may see the prepaid services driving consumer confidence for more mobile-based financial services going forward.

By Cindy Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum

November 29, 2010 in identity theft, mobile payments, money laundering, prepaid | Permalink

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November 15, 2010


Retail Payments Risk Forum publishes white paper on mobile payments

Everyone has a cell phone these days, and that ubiquity is paving the way for wide acceptance of mobile money person-to-person transfer services, also known as MMT. Emerging countries, where the mobile channel provides a safe, efficient environment for conducting financial transactions and improving financial inclusion, have been especially quick to adopt MMT. In contrast, mobile payment adoption in the United States has been slow, but many experts believe that, with more people acquiring smart phones and having access to all the applications that go with them, MMT is on the brink of becoming widely accepted.

As roaming agreements between wireless carriers and the globalization of commerce in general work together to render our world's geographic borders irrelevant, how quickly can we expect these services to migrate to the United States? More importantly, as various forms of electronic payment crimes emerge, what should the industry do to prepare for new mobile services in a cross-border environment?

To answer these questions, the Retail Payments Risk Forum recently published a white paper titled "Mobile money transfer services: The next phase in the evolution in person-to-person payments," which describes the current landscape for these services and examines the risk environment for mobile money for both developed and emerging countries as new business partnerships between bank and telecom firms take shape.

MMT has the potential to catalyze the mobile financial services market
Infrastructure developments to support MMTs could support the evolution of other financial services. According to the GSM Association, this infrastructure provides the basis for the concept of the mobile wallet, which will allow mobile phones users to conduct banking, proximity payments using the phone at a merchant's point-of-sale terminal, and remote mobile payments, including domestic and cross-border mobile transfers.

111510


The mobile money risk environment
The risks inherent in all retail payments are also present in the mobile space, including money laundering, privacy and security, consumer protection, fraud, and credit and liquidity. As mobile financial services evolve, there will be a number of issues to consider for managing the new risks mobile phone-based payments stand to introduce. The emergence of more nonbank participants in the distribution of mobile payments, including telecom firms and their agents along with technology vendors, may create additional risk considerations for payment regulators. Since mobile technology-enabled payments do not require the face-to-face interaction that takes place with traditional banking, the resulting opaque, anonymous experience can also create more opportunity for criminal activity. This will be increasingly important in a future where mobile retail payments will occur rapidly and across geographic borders, potentially outside the purview of traditional regulatory oversight. Payments regulators have limited expertise and experience in identifying electronic payments crime in communication systems—so the potential for abuse is a real and imminent threat that is still abstract and not well understood in this early stage of the game.

Policy considerations for industry stakeholders, policymakers, and regulators
The integrity and safety of the world's retail payment systems rely on cooperative information sharing about service developments and potential gaps in regulation. A number of considerations should remain at the forefront of industry discussions.

  • The new mobile landscape will require dialogue between the regulatory authorities for financial services and telecom firms. Financial and telecom sector regulators will need a comprehensive understanding of the emerging risks in mobile payments with a collective eye toward the potential need to establish new regulatory concepts of electronic money regulation. This may demand a program for routine communication to ensure that regulators understand payment system risk issues and provide effective risk-based supervision for payment services providers.
  • An oversight infrastructure for mobile payments, including the financial services of telecom firms, should be established. This oversight might be established through a routinely convening workgroup representing applicable regulators or the creation of a new organization with expertise in the unique and dynamic risk issues in mobile services.
  • Cross-border mobile payments may require improved customer-data sharing on an international basis. The anticipated growth in mobile remittances may demand a new environment of international cooperation and sharing of customer data and analysis.
  • U.S. mobile payments services providers should be required to establish programs to mitigate the risk of money laundering. Mobile services will require new methods for detecting and monitoring data flows. All service providers, including telecoms, will need to establish risk management programs commensurate with the risk in their service offerings.
  • Converged regulatory authorities should examiner consumer protection risks for potential gaps in regulatory oversight. In the United States, it may be necessary to reexamine the applicability of Regulation E protections to stored-value payments as they become more prevalent in the mobile channel, in order to prevent consumer confusion in error resolution scenarios.


Conclusion
The experts are right in saying that mobile adoption still low. But the rapid pace of change means that industry stakeholders, and especially regulators, need to be forward-looking and anticipate where the winds of change will blow. A rearview mirror approach to addressing emerging risks in mobile payments can be modified with proactive thinking, dialogue, and global collaboration.

By Cindy Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum

 

November 15, 2010 in mobile money transfer, mobile payments, money laundering, P2P, risk management | Permalink

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November 08, 2010


Proposed rule targets cross-border wire transfers

In its simplest terms, money laundering generally involves the creation of an intricate series of financial transactions designed to conceal the identity, source, and destination of illicitly obtained funds. The success or failure of the laundering process generally turns on whether the launderer successfully minimizes or eliminates the trail that would lead law enforcement to trace the illicit proceeds back to their illegal source.

One common method for laundering money is wire transfers, particularly cross-border wire transfers, as they permit funds to move instantaneously from one account to another within and among international financial institutions. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) recently took action to address the money laundering risks commonly associated with cross-border wire transfers by proposing more stringent reporting requirements for financial institutions.

Expanded reporting for cross-border wire transfers
On September 27, 2010, FinCEN issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would lower the reporting threshold on cross-border electronic fund transfers (CBEFT) from $10,000 to $1,000. FinCEN based its proposed rule on the conclusions of two studies: Feasibility of a Cross-Border Electronic Funds Transfer Reporting System under the Bank Secrecy Act, and Implications and Benefits of Cross-Border Funds Transmittal Reporting. The proposed rule would also require certain depository institutions and money services businesses to provide records to FinCEN of certain cross-border electronic transmittals of funds. Banks directly transacting with foreign financial institutions would be required to report all cross-border wire transfers to FinCEN.

The proposal would also require financial institutions to report the taxpayer identification numbers (TIN) of individuals who make CBETFs. Banks would file a list of these numbers annually for all CBETFs, regardless of the amount. MSBs would file TINs for CBETFs of $3,000 or more.

Currently, financial institutions are subject only to reporting suspicious wire transfers and maintaining and making available upon request to FinCEN records of cross-border wire transfers. According to FinCEN, the proposed rule will most likely affect larger financial institutions that use centralized message systems like SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), Fedwire, and CHIPS (Clearing House Interbank Payments System).

The challenge in monitoring cross-border wire transfers
Monitoring cross-border wire transfers can present unique challenges since their processing can sometimes involve several intermediary financial institutions before the intended funds are received by the beneficiary. Effectively monitoring these transfers for anti-money laundering purposes generally requires that banks and nonfinancial institutions be knowledgeable of an account's normal and reasonable activity so they are better armed to identify transactions that may fall outside a known pattern.

According to a paper by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, there is need for improved transparency in cross-border wires due to the variance with the existing wire structure, which has done little to enable institutions to report the difference between cross-border and domestic wire transfers. The paper states that existing messaging practices can impair an institution's risk management and compliance obligations.

The proposed cross-border wire transfer reporting requirements are intended to improve transparency by facilitating more information gathering and enhancing money laundering due diligence. The proposed rule may also further assist law enforcement with the arduous task of unraveling the launderers' intricate web of tracing laundered proceeds back to their illegal source. FinCEN estimates that the proposed rule will spur 500 million to 700 million new reports a year. Currently, financial institutions and MSBs file more than 15 million reports per year.

Containing existing loopholes
FinCEN indicates that the enhanced reporting requirements will help close certain loopholes in the existing wire transfer rules that are exploited for money laundering, terrorist financing, and tax evasion—for instance, money launderers often purposefully send funds in increments below the current reporting threshold and use multiple institutions to avoid detection. Nevertheless, it is hoped that heightened reporting of account activity will help law enforcement and regulatory authorities detect, mitigate, and investigate money laundering and other illicit financial crimes. Or will the increased reporting requirements only serve to flood FinCEN with massive amounts of wire transfer data? But that is the topic of a future post.

The proposed rule is open for comment until December 29, 2010.

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

November 8, 2010 in cross-border wires, law enforcement, money laundering, money services business (MSB), regulators | Permalink

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October 04, 2010


Has existing regulation of money services businesses kept pace with their enhanced financial services options?

Most businesses that meet the definition of money services business (MSB) offer financial services such as wire transfers, currency exchange, check cashing, traveler's checks, money orders, or stored-value cards. In the past, MSBs mostly served consumers without an established banking relationship—that is, the unbanked. Today, consumers with established banking relationships may also use these services on occasion because the MSBs sometimes offer cheaper services, such as wire transfers, than banks do.

Well-established MSBs such as Western Union and MoneyGram have provided the traditional services—wire transfers, currency exchange, check cashing, and so on—for years. Over the past few years, MSBs have rapidly grown and expanded their financial services offerings with options such as Internet-directed services for person-to-person (P2P) and person-to-business (P2B) payments, stored-value products, and, most recently, mobile money transfer service, which permits users to send funds cross-border and domestically using their mobile phone.

But are these expanded financial services within the coverage of the existing regulatory framework for MSBs? Are there new money laundering risks with the introduction of new financial services options not previously anticipated by the existing regulatory framework?

Conforming MSB regulation to mirror MSBs enhanced services
Although states have regulated check cashers and money transmitters for years, regulation of these nonbank financial institutions has not been uniform. The Uniform Money Services Act (UMSA) was adopted in an effort to provide a framework to deal with money laundering issues unique to nondepository providers of financial services. UMSA applies to businesses that provide money services and requires that MSBs be licensed, maintain extensive records of their transactions, and submit to audits. Although some MSBs may only offer one or more of the services listed above, all MSBs are subject to the provisions of UMSA because of the interrelated group of services they offer and because they are not regulated in the same manner as depositary institutions.

UMSA expanded existing MSB regulatory coverage to include what was considered at the time a new type of payment service: Internet-based service. It was believed that this new type of financial service posed the same concerns as did traditional financial services, such as wire transfers and check cashing, for example.

A patchwork of regulation
MSB compliance is a complex patchwork of regulations that involve federal restrictions on money laundering as well as state consumer protection mandates. MSBs are required to follow Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-money Laundering (BSA/AML) regulations that require them to file "Currency Transaction Reports," implement AML programs, and file "Suspicious Activity Reports." The Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has delegated authority to the IRS to examine MSBs for compliance with BSA requirements. State agencies may evaluate MSBs for compliance with BSA, though they may not directly enforce the BSA. Generally, State agencies are charged with enforcing their own MSB state statutes and regulations, which sometimes may impose requirements that overlap with the BSA.

Navigating through MSB regulations
In 2009, FinCEN conducted outreach meetings with some of the largest MSBs in an effort to better understand how MSBs navigate through these numerous regulations. The meetings resulted in the production of a report that stated that as MSBs navigate through these regulations, they place significant emphasis on agent oversight and compliance, value their reputation and consumer trust as the core objective of their business models, and feel that being in compliance with BSA regulations is consistent with their business model. The results of this report do not certify that the participating MSBs were in compliance with MSB regulations.

In the last year, legislation was proposed that would centralize MSB anti-money laundering compliance with the Treasury and authorize that office to recognize a self-regulatory organization similar to the private nonprofit Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) that regulates broker dealers. The goal of the bill is to bring about uniform registration and supervision of MSBs without preempting state laws.

MSBs play a vital role in domestic and foreign economies, particularly by providing the needed financial services that facilitate the transmission of money to foreign countries. Establishing uniform legislation may strengthen the continued work of combating money laundering and help prevent the use of MSBs as channels for money laundering or other illicit activities.

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

October 4, 2010 in financial services, mobile money transfer, money laundering, money services business (MSB) | Permalink

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