Fall 2020 Brings Increased Regulatory Focus on Financial Institution Detection of Human Trafficking

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Moore & Van Allen PLLCOn October 15, 2020, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the U.S. Department of Treasury (FinCEN) released its Supplemental Advisory on Identifying and Reporting Human Trafficking and Related Activity (Supplemental Advisory). The last time FinCEN provided guidance on identifying trafficking in anti-money laundering (AML) processes was in Guidance on Recognizing Activity that May be Associated with Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking – Financial Red Flags on September 11, 2014. The evolving tactics of human traffickers and behaviors of victims required updated guidance in order for financial institutions to better meet Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) obligations to assist the government in detecting and preventing money laundering. 

The Supplemental Advisory focuses on four emerging tactics used by human traffickers to carry out and hide the proceeds from their illicit operations: front companies, exploitative employment practices, funnel accounts, and alternative payment methods. Front companies are lawful, licensed, and registered businesses which are used by traffickers to comingle the illicit proceeds generated from their scheme of human exploitation with that of a legitimate business. Examples include massage parlors, nail salons, even electrician services, and faith-based mission work. 

Labor trafficking can be harder to detect than sex trafficking for AML departments. FinCEN’s Supplemental Advisory alerts financial institutions to examples of exploitative labor practices, including visa fraud, wage withholding, and recruitment fee advances. Note that in 2019, the Federal Acquisition Regulation: Combating Trafficking in Persons was amended to address prohibited recruitment fees and broadened contractor responsibility for violative recruitment fees in supply chains. 

Funnel accounts continue to be a common tactic wherein a trafficker coerces a victim to open one or more bank accounts in their own name, and then directs them to deposit, transfer, wire, and withdraw monies in amounts below a reporting threshold, for the benefit the trafficker or the enterprise. Because the accounts are often held exclusively in the victims’ names, the trafficker remains anonymous. 

Such account activity may lead to an Unusual Activity Report or Suspicious Activity Report but that would erroneously target the victim, not the perpetrator. Accounts may be closed by the financial institution, or at the direction of the trafficker, following overdraft or low balances, which can cause victims to incur bad credit status and prevent them from accessing financial services in the future. 

The Supplemental Advisory further alerts financial institutions to the prolific use of prepaid cards, virtual currencies, smartphone cash applications, and third-party payment processors to advertise their sex trafficking business and receive payment. 

Although the indicators list addended to the Supplemental Advisory is not significantly different than past iterations, it adds a set of case studies. Specific perpetrator and victim vignettes are effective in modernizing detection tools as they allow financial institutions to keep their pulse on real life examples relayed by law enforcement and survivor advocates. The Supplemental Advisory also reminds financial institutions that they are protected from liability for information sharing afforded under Section 314(b) of the USA Patriot Act. Traffickers often implicate multiple financial institutions and only through a wider lens and open communication can otherwise lawful-appearing activity be identified as suspicious.  

Finally, the Supplemental Advisory notes FinCEN’s Customer Due Diligence Rule, promulgated in 2018, which generally requires some financial institutions to identify beneficial owners of commercial customers. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, “whoever knowingly benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value” may be subject to criminal and civil liability. Therefore, diligence and monitoring processes are to include potential third-party participants in an exploitive scheme.  

FinCEN’s advisory on human trafficking is timely. In the last few months, regulators have signaled increased attention on financial institution responses to human trafficking. This past summer, Deutsche Bank was fined $150M by The New York State Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) for compliance failures related to client Jeffrey Epstein, his sex trafficking enterprise and correspondent banks. In the Consent Order, NYDFS found the Deutsche Bank “conducted business in an unsafe and unsound manner [and] failed to maintain an effective and compliant anti-money laundering program.” This September, Westpac Bank was fined $920M USD by the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (Australia’s financial intelligence, anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism regulator) for failures in AML reporting, record keeping and detection, including transfers indicative of child sex trafficking. This fine is the largest paid to an Australian regulator for violation of money laundering laws to date. Also in September, the United Kingdom announced that the U.K. Modern Slavery Act of 2015 will be strengthened to (i) allocate more funding to enforce its requirements and (ii) mandate that companies’ modern slavery statements cover certain topics ranging from due diligence to risk assessment. 

Increased regulatory focus on financial institution responses to human trafficking deserves attention.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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