Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

We previously reported that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) had quietly extended its Geographic Targeting Orders directed at the luxury residential real estate market for another six months. In a break from its recent practice of making public announcements about GTOs, FinCEN evidently opted not to publicize this latest extension. A Miami Herald article reported that a FinCEN spokesperson stated only that “GTOs are a valuable tool and FinCEN is extending the current GTOs to continue studying this vulnerability.”

In order to seek to obtain additional information regarding the latest round of GTOs, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to FinCEN seeking copies of the GTOs that were set to take effect on March 21, 2018. In response, FinCEN refused to provide copies of the GTOs or any information regarding their scope. FinCEN relied upon the FOIA exemption for “records compiled for law enforcement purposes,” which allows a federal agency to withhold records if their release “would disclose techniques and/or procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”

We continue to monitor developments in this area and will provide updates as they become available.

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Breaking from its recent practice of making public announcements about Geographic Targeting Orders, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) last month quietly extended its real estate GTOs for another six months. The new expiration date is September 16, 2018. FinCEN’s move to continue the GTOs a fourth time suggests that the orders are generating meaningful intelligence for law enforcement regarding potential money laundering involving luxury real estate in the United States.

In January 2016, FinCEN announced with significant fanfare the initial issuance of the real estate GTOs, proclaiming in a press release that “FinCEN Takes Aim at Real Estate Secrecy in Manhattan and Miami.” Those initial orders required certain title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind companies used to pay all cash for luxury residential real properties located in the borough of Manhattan and Miami-Dade County. All-cash transactions exceeding $3 million in Manhattan, or exceeding $1 million in Miami-Dade County, were to be reported to FinCEN with an identification of the “beneficial owner” behind the transaction.

On the eve of the expiration of the original Manhattan and Miami-Dade GTOs in August 2016, FinCEN announced a significant expansion of their scope with the issuance of additional GTOs covering the following geographic areas: (1) all boroughs of New York City; (2) Miami-Dade County and the two counties immediately north (Broward and Palm Beach); (3) Los Angeles County, California; (4) three counties comprising part of the San Francisco area (San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties); (5) San Diego County, California; and (6) the county that includes San Antonio, Texas (Bexar County). The monetary thresholds for each geographic area varied.

In February 2017, FinCEN announced that its efforts to combat money laundering in the luxury real estate market were being extended for an additional six months. At that time, then-FinCEN Acting Director Jamal El-Hindi said that the real estate GTOs were “producing valuable data that is assisting law enforcement and is serving to inform our future efforts to address money laundering in the real estate sector.” FinCEN also revealed that approximately 30 percent of the transactions covered by the GTOs involved a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that is also the subject of a previously-filed “suspicious activity report,” thereby corroborating FinCEN’s long-expressed concerns about the use of shell companies to buy luxury real estate in all-cash deals.

Six months later, in August 2017, FinCEN announced the issuance of revised GTOs that require U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind shell companies used to pay for high-end residential real estate in seven metropolitan areas. Following the recent enactment of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, FinCEN revised the GTOs to capture a broader range of transactions and include transactions involving wire transfers. FinCEN also expanded the GTOs to include transactions conducted in the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition, FinCEN published an Advisory to provide financial institutions and the real estate industry with information on the money laundering risks associated with real estate transactions, including those involving luxury property purchased through shell companies, particularly when conducted without traditional financing. Such transactions are vulnerable to abuse by criminals seeking to launder illegal proceeds and mask their identities. The Advisory provided information on how to detect and report these transactions to FinCEN.

The latest iteration of the real estate GTOs was set to expire on March 20, 2018. Without issuance of a press release and nary a public statement, FinCEN quietly extended those orders for another six month period, through September 16, 2018. A Miami Herald article reporting on this development included the following quote from a FinCEN spokesman:

“The GTOs issued to date have provided FinCEN and law enforcement important information about money-laundering vulnerabilities in the real estate sector,” Stephen Hudak, a FinCEN spokesman, wrote in an email Wednesday. “GTOs are a valuable tool and FinCEN is extending the current GTOs to continue studying this vulnerability.”

With this fourth extension, the real estate GTOs – which by statute are supposed to be temporary measures – have now been in effect for more than two full years. Although FinCEN has made only a few public statements about whether the GTOs are generating meaningful intelligence and leads, it can be safely assumed that they are working. It remains to be seen whether these enhanced (and temporary) reporting requirements imposed by the real estate GTOs will be made permanent through passage of legislation or regulations.

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BitcoinIn a recent speech, the Under Secretary of Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI) warned of the growing threats to the U.S. financial system posed by virtual currencies. Addressing the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s Anti-Money Laundering & Financial Crimes Conference, Sigal Mandelker spoke broadly of the U.S. government’s efforts to combat money laundering, terrorist financing, narcotics trafficking, corruption, and other types of illicit finance and national security threats.

In her speech, Under Secretary Mandelker specifically focused on ways in which criminals and other illicit actors are now using virtual currencies:

Kleptocrats and criminals are also attempting to find new ways around our controls to exploit the financial system. In recent years, we’ve seen terrorist groups, criminal organizations, and even rogue regimes like Venezuela experiment with and use digital and virtual currencies to hide their ill-gotten gains and finance their illicit activities. Recently, for example, Venezuela announced plans to create the “petro” digital currency to try and sidestep our powerful sanctions, which the United States imposed on the regime for its vicious assault on human rights and the rule of law.

Likewise, law enforcement authorities recently arrested a woman in New York who used Bitcoin to launder fraud proceeds before wiring the money to ISIS.

In TFI, we closely track technological innovations involving virtual currency and are aggressively targeting rogue actors attempting to use it for illicit purposes. Critical to our efforts is the regulatory framework and enforcement authorities we have in place that govern the use of virtual currency. Through FinCEN, Treasury regulates virtual currency exchangers as money transmitters and requires them to abide by Bank Secrecy Act obligations. We also use our strong enforcement powers to target those who fail to live up to their responsibilities.

Virtual currency businesses are subject to comprehensive, routine AML/CFT examinations, just like financial institutions in the securities and futures markets. We work in partnership with the IRS to examine virtual currency exchangers under our regulations for money transmitters. We also work in partnership with the SEC and CFTC to ensure that these businesses and those in your sector dealing in virtual currency appropriately address their AML/CFT BSA responsibilities.

We are also encouraging our international partners to strengthen their virtual currency frameworks. The lack of AML/CFT regulation of virtual currency providers worldwide greatly exacerbates virtual currency’s illicit financing risks. Currently, we are one of the only major countries in the world, along with Japan and Australia, that regulate these activities for AML/CFT purposes. But we need many more countries to follow suit, and have made this a priority in our international outreach, including through the Financial Action Task Force.

North Korea, Hizballah, Iran, and emerging technologies used by illicit actors are just a few examples of the many threats we face. They reinforce the importance of the international community coming together to combat bad actors and protect financial systems, markets, and institutions from abuse.

Under Secretary Mandelker also spoke about the critically important role of anti-money laundering compliance in the financial industry, and warned that “companies and individuals who do not adhere to our laws face stiff penalties,” noting that “[a]ggressive enforcement gives teeth to our powerful economic authorities.” She further explained that the financial industry must carefully study, and learn from, the enforcement actions taken by FinCEN and other Treasury departments:

Each of our actions, whether by FinCEN, OFAC, or other departments, provides an opportunity for the private sector to gain better insight into our compliance and enforcement priorities, and each action tells a story about our expectations and where that particular company fell short.

She then described FinCEN’s well-publicized enforcement action against BTC-e, a foreign virtual currency exchanger:

In the last year we have pursued actions against a number of non-U.S. companies and individuals for violating U.S. laws related to economic sanctions and money laundering, sending the very powerful message that we are intent on using our authorities no matter where in the world the illicit activity is taking place.

For example, FinCEN recently assessed a $110 million fine against BTC-e, an Internet-based virtual currency exchanger located outside the United States which did substantial business in our country. BTC-e exchanges fiat currency, as well as convertible currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, at one point serving approximately 700,000 customers across the world and associated with bitcoin wallets that have received over 9.4 million bitcoins.

Customers located within the United States used BTC-e to conduct tens of thousands of transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars in virtual currencies, including between customers located in the U.S.

Yet BTC-e never registered as a money transmitter, even after FinCEN made clear through published advisories and other guidance that such exchangers were legally required to do so.

The company lacked basic controls to prevent the use of its services for illicit purposes.

As a result, they emerged as one of the principal means by which cyber criminals around the world laundered the proceeds of their illicit activity, facilitating crimes such as computer hacking and ransomware, fraud, identity theft, tax refund schemes, public corruption and drug trafficking.

In light of BTC-e’s failure to fulfill its AML obligations, Treasury took action both against the company and Russian national Alexander Vinnik, who directed and supervised BTC-e’s operations and finances.

We imposed a $12 million penalty on Vinnik and the Justice Department indicted him on 21 counts.

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The United States Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) launched the “FinCEN Exchange” program today in order to enhance information sharing with financial institutions and to strengthen public-private partnerships to combat financial crime. As part of this program, FinCEN, in close coordination with law enforcement, will convene regular briefings with financial institutions to exchange information on priority illicit finance threats, including targeted information and broader typologies. This will enable financial institutions to better identify risks and focus on high priority issues, and will help FinCEN and law enforcement receive critical information in support of their efforts to disrupt money laundering and other financial crimes.

“Strong public-private partnerships and two-way information sharing is a crucial component of our efforts to combat the sophisticated money laundering methods and evolving threats we face today,” said Sigal P. Mandelker, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. “FinCEN Exchange will bring together law enforcement, FinCEN, and different types of financial institutions from across the country to share information that can help identify vulnerabilities and disrupt terrorist financing, proliferation financing and other financial crimes.”

Private sector participation in FinCEN Exchange is strictly voluntary, and the program does not introduce any new regulatory requirements. It also does not replace or otherwise affect existing mechanisms by which law enforcement engages directly with the financial industry. It is part of Treasury’s broader objective of strengthening the anti-money laundering framework by encouraging, enabling, and acknowledging more regular industry focus on high-value and high-impact activities. Operational briefings under the FinCEN Exchange program will begin in the coming weeks.

Law enforcement relies on the financial industry to report important data to fight financial crime through mechanisms such as Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) and Currency Transaction Reports (CTRs). The government, in turn, provides feedback to the private sector, including through FinCEN Advisories, SAR Statistics, briefings, and other forms of information to guide and encourage industry efforts.

Since 2015, FinCEN has convened over a dozen special briefings in five cities with over 40 financial institutions and multiple law enforcement agencies. In connection with these briefings, FinCEN, working closely with law enforcement, issues requests pursuant to Section 314(a) of the USA PATRIOT Act related to investigations and provides associated financial typologies. Information provided after the briefings by financial institutions through SARs has helped the public sector map out and target weapons proliferators, sophisticated global money laundering operations, human trafficking and smuggling rings, corruption and trade-based money laundering networks, among other illicit actors. The briefings also have proved useful to financial institutions, helping them focus on specific priorities and better identify risks.

FinCEN Exchange will build on the success of these efforts by convening more regularly scheduled and as-needed operational briefings across the nation with law enforcement, FinCEN, and financial institutions to exchange information on priority illicit finance and national security threats. In consultation with law enforcement, FinCEN will invite financial institutions to participate based on a variety of factors, including whether they may possess information relevant to a particular topic. While the contours of each briefing will vary, the information shared, whether through Section 314(a) of the USA PATRIOT Act or other authorities, will often include information intended to support specific lines of investigation or broader typologies related to a particular illicit finance threat. After receiving information at a FinCEN Exchange operational briefing, financial institutions will be better equipped to incorporate responsive information into SARs.

FinCEN’s regulations under Section 314 of the USA Patriot Act enable federal, state, local, and foreign (such as European Union) law enforcement agencies, through FinCEN, to reach out to more than 37,000 points of contact at more than 16,000 financial institutions to locate accounts and transactions of persons that may be involved in terrorism or money laundering. FinCEN receives requests from law enforcement and upon review, sends notifications to designated contacts within financial institutions across the country once every 2 weeks informing them new information has been made available via a secure Internet web site. The requests contain subject and business names, addresses, and as much identifying data as possible to assist the financial industry in searching their records. The financial institutions must query their records for data matches, including accounts maintained by the named subject during the preceding 12 months and transactions conducted within the last 6 months. Financial institutions have 2 weeks from the posting date of the request to respond with any positive matches. If the search does not uncover any matching of accounts or transactions, the financial institution is instructed not to reply to the 314(a) request.

FinCEN also encourages financial institutions to voluntarily share, as appropriate, information with other FinCEN Exchange participants as well as other financial institutions or associations of financial institutions pursuant to Section 314(b) of the USA PATRIOT Act. Section 314(b) provides financial institutions with the ability to share information with one another, under a safe harbor that offers protections from liability, in order to better identify and report potential money laundering or terrorist activities.

Today the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced that it had fined a California card club, Artichoke Joe’s Casino, $8 million for numerous willful violations of the Bank Secrecy Act occurring since 2009. In its assessment, FinCEN found that during the last eight years, the card club failed to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and failed to detect and adequately report suspicious transactions in a timely manner. This is the third enforcement action against a card club for FinCEN, the only federal regulator with anti-money laundering enforcement authority over card clubs. Artichoke Joe’s Casino did not consent to imposition of the assessment, which means that the Justice Department must now file suit in federal court to enforce the assessment and collect the penalty amount.

Artichoke Joe’s Casino is located in San Bruno, California, and has been in operation since 1916. A “card club” is a gaming establishment that only offers card games, and most are located in Montana and California. One of the largest card clubs in California, Artichoke Joe’s Casino contains 38 tables offering card and tile games, including baccarat, blackjack, poker, and Pai Gow, and has a history of compliance deficiencies. The Internal Revenue Service, which examines card clubs for compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act, conducted an examination in 2015 that identified significant violations of the Bank Secrecy Act. In addition, on May 9, 2011, Artichoke Joe’s Casino entered into a stipulated settlement with the California Bureau of Gambling Control, agreeing to pay a fine of $550,000, with $275,000 stayed for a two-year period, and agreed to modify its surveillance, work with the city of San Bruno to improve coordination with law enforcement, replace employees at the Pai Gow tables, and provide additional training on loan-sharking, illegal drugs, and compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act.

In a press release announcing the assessment, Jamal El-Hindi, Acting Director of FinCEN, said, “[f]or years, Artichoke Joe’s turned a blind eye to loan sharking, suspicious transfers of high-value gaming chips, and flagrant criminal activity that occurred in plain sight. FinCEN’s $8 million civil penalty results from the card club’s failure to establish adequate internal controls and its willful violations of the Bank Secrecy Act. Casinos, card clubs and others in the gaming industry should consider their risk of exploitation by criminal elements, and understand that they will be held accountable if they disregard anti-money laundering and illicit finance laws. This significant action highlights the need for all entities, including those in the gaming industry, to build a robust culture of compliance into their policies and procedures to ensure they are not facilitating illicit activities.”

In March 2011, Artichoke Joe’s Casino was the subject of a raid by state and federal law enforcement which led to the racketeering indictment and conviction of two customers for loan-sharking and other illicit activities conducted at the casino. Senior-level employees knew that loan-sharks were conducting criminal activity through the card club and using gaming chips to facilitate illegal transactions. Nonetheless, according to FinCEN, Artichoke Joe’s Casino failed to file any Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) on this activity.

According to FinCEN, Artichoke Joe’s Casino also failed to implement adequate internal controls, which exposed the card club to a heightened risk of money laundering and other criminal activity. In particular, the card club failed to adopt adequate policies and procedures to address risks associated with gaming practices that allow customers to pool or co-mingle their bets with relative anonymity. Further, Artichoke Joe’s Casino did not establish procedures for obtaining and incorporating information from propositional players (players paid by casinos or card clubs to wager at a game) or other employees who may have observed suspicious transactions. The card club also failed to file complete and timely reports on suspicious transactions involving potentially structured chip redemptions and purchases, and redemptions of large volumes of chips with no cash-in or gaming activity.

FinCEN’s action today represents only its third enforcement action against a card club, and its first ever non-consensual card club assessment. Its first action was against Oaks Card Club of Emeryville, California in December 2015. In that proceeding, Oaks Card Club admitted that it violated the program and reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act and agreed to pay a fine of $650,000. In July 2016, FinCEN fined Hawaiian Gardens Casino (also based in California) $2.8 million, which admitted that it violated the Bank Secrecy Act’s program and reporting requirements and agreed to future undertakings, including periodic independent reviews to examine and test its AML program.

 

Today the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced Kenneth A. Blanco as Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a bureau in Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. The leading federal anti-money laundering (AML) regulator, FinCEN’s mission is to safeguard the financial system from illicit use and combat money laundering and promote national security through the collection, analysis, and dissemination of financial intelligence and strategic use of financial authorities. Mr. Blanco will replace Jamal El-Hindi, who has served as acting FinCEN Director since May 2016, when Jennifer Shasky Calvery resigned as FinCEN Director and joined HSBC.

Mr. Blanco’s appointment as FinCEN Director continues a recent trend of criminal prosecutors departing the Justice Department to join FinCEN’s leadership ranks. Mr. Blanco has been a federal criminal prosecutor for 28 years, most recently serving as Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. During his tenure with the Criminal Division, Mr. Blanco has overseen a number of its sections, including the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (formerly the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section), the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section, the Organized Crime and Gang Section, and the Child Exploitation Section. Mr. Blanco has supervised many of the Criminal Division’s most significant national and international investigations into illicit finance, money laundering, Bank Secrecy Act, and sanctions violations, including investigations of global financial institutions and money services businesses. Much of his work is in the international banking and financial services area, working and collaborating with international partners in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Panama, among others.

Mr. Blanco’s predecessor, Jennifer Shasky Calvery, was appointed FinCEN Director in August 2012, following a 15-year career as a Justice Department prosecutor, where she led the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section and also worked in the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section prosecuting cases targeting international organized crime groups and particularly the professional money launderers who supported them. Ms. Shasky Calvery, the first career prosecutor ever to lead FinCEN, subsequently recruited many of her former Justice Department colleagues to join her at FinCEN, thereby bringing a decidedly prosecutorial bent to an agency that was historically viewed as primarily a data-gathering institution rather than a law enforcement agency.

Since Ms. Shasky Calvery’s appointment as FinCEN Director in 2012, the agency has advanced a significantly more aggressive enforcement agenda aimed at combating terrorist financing, trade-based money laundering, money laundering through real estate transactions, the use of third-party money launderers, and money laundering through use of virtual currency. FinCEN has also increased substantially its use of Geographic Targeting Orders, a temporary and geographically-limited anti-money laundering device authorized by the Bank Secrecy Act and the USA Patriot Act. This dramatic change-of-direction was no doubt the product of a prosecutorial mindset that Ms. Shasky Calvery and her Justice Department colleagues brought to FinCEN. With the announcement of Mr. Blanco’s appointment as FinCEN Director, another veteran criminal prosecutor is at the agency’s helm, and he will almost certainly continue the rigorous AML enforcement agenda that his predecessor initiated five years ago.

The Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has issued an advisory to alert financial institutions of widespread public corruption in Venezuela and the methods Venezuelan senior political figures and their associates may use to move and hide proceeds of their corruption through the U.S. financial system. The advisory also describes a number of financial red flags to assist financial institutions in identifying and reporting suspicious activity that may be indicative of corruption.

“In recent years, financial institutions have reported to FinCEN their suspicions regarding many transactions suspected of being linked to Venezuelan public corruption, including government contracts,” said Acting FinCEN Director Jamal El-Hindi in a press release. “Not all transactions involving Venezuela involve corruption, but, particularly now, during a period of turmoil in that country, financial institutions need to continue their vigilance to help identify and stop the flow of corrupt proceeds and guard against money laundering and other illicit financial activity.”

Background Regarding Venezuela

In its advisory, FinCEN notes that Venezuela faces severe economic and political circumstances due to the rupture of democratic and constitutional order by the government and policy choices. In recent years, financial institutions have reported to FinCEN their suspicions regarding many transactions suspected of being linked to Venezuelan public corruption, including government contracts. Based on this reporting and other information, all Venezuelan government agencies and bodies, including state-owned enterprises (SOEs), appear vulnerable to public corruption and money laundering. The Venezuelan government appears to use its control over large parts of the economy to generate significant wealth for government officials and SOE executives, their families, and associates. In this regard, there is a high risk of corruption involving Venezuelan government officials and employees at all levels, including those managing or working at Venezuelan SOEs.

FinCEN Recommends Risk-Based Approach

According to FinCEN, financial institutions should take risk-based steps to identify and limit any exposure they may have to funds and other assets associated with Venezuelan public corruption. Awareness of money laundering schemes used by corrupt Venezuelan officials may help financial institutions (1) differentiate between illicit and legitimate transactions, and (2) identify and report transactions involving suspected corruption proceeds being held or moved by their customers, including through their private and correspondent banking relationships. Consistent with a risk-based approach, however, financial institutions should be aware that normal business and other transactions involving Venezuelan nationals and businesses do not necessarily represent the same risk as transactions and relationships identified as being connected to the Venezuelan government, Venezuelan officials, and Venezuelan SOEs involved in public corruption that exhibit the red flags below or other similar indicia.

Recent OFAC Sanctions

On February 13, 2017, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. On the same day, OFAC also designated his front man, Samark Lopez Bello, for materially assisting El Aissami and acting on his behalf.  OFAC further designated or identified as blocked property 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez Bello or other designated parties that comprise an international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela. Five U.S. companies owned or controlled by Lopez Bello were also blocked as well as significant real property and other assets in the Miami, Florida area tied to Lopez Bello. As a result of this action, U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions or otherwise dealing with these individuals and entities, and any assets the individuals and entities may have under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen. FinCEN believes that these OFAC designations increase the likelihood that other non-designated Venezuelan senior political figures may seek to protect their assets, including those that are likely to be associated with political corruption, to avoid potential future blocking actions.

Venezuela Government Corruption Red Flags

In its advisory, FinCEN states that transactions involving Venezuelan government agencies and SOEs, particularly those involving government contracts, can potentially be used as vehicles to move, launder, and conceal embezzled corruption proceeds. SOEs (as well as their officials) may also try to use the U.S. financial system to move or hide proceeds of public corruption. Among the SOEs referenced in OFAC’s recent designations related to Venezuela are the National Center for Foreign Commerce (CENCOEX), Suministros Venezolanos Industriales, CA (SUVINCA), the Foreign Trade Bank (BANCOEX), the National Telephone Company (CANTV), the National Electric Corporation (CORPELEC), Venezuelan Economic and Social Bank (BANDES), and similar state-controlled entities. As law enforcement and financial institutions increase scrutiny of transactions involving Venezuelan SOEs, corrupt officials may try to channel illicit proceeds through lesser-known or newly-created SOEs or affiliated enterprises.

The red flags noted below, which are derived from information available to FinCEN (including suspicious activity reporting), published information associated with OFAC designations, and other public reporting, may help financial institutions identify suspected schemes by corrupt officials, their family members, and associates to channel corruption proceeds, often involving government contracts or resources, through transactions involving Venezuelan SOEs and subsidiaries:

FinCEN believes that corrupt officials may use contracts with the Venezuelan government as vehicles to embezzle funds and receive bribes. In this regard, some financial red flags can include:

  • Transactions involving Venezuelan government contracts that are directed to personal accounts.
  • Transactions involving Venezuelan government contracts that are directed to companies that operate in an unrelated line of business (e.g., payments for construction projects directed to textile merchants).
  • Transactions involving Venezuelan government contracts that originate with, or are directed to, entities that are shell corporations, general “trading companies,” or companies that lack a general business purpose.
  • Documentation corroborating transactions involving Venezuelan government contracts (e.g., invoices) that include charges at substantially higher prices than market rates or that include overly simple documentation or lack traditional details (e.g., valuations for goods and services). Venezuelan officials who receive preferential access to U.S. dollars at the more favorable, official exchange rate may exploit this multi-tier exchange rate system for profit.
  • Payments involving Venezuelan government contracts that originate from non-official Venezuelan accounts, particularly accounts located in jurisdictions outside of Venezuela (e.g., Panama or the Caribbean).
  • Payments involving Venezuelan government contracts that originate from third parties that are not official Venezuelan government entities (e.g., shell companies). Public reports indicate that the use of third parties, or brokers, to deal with government entities is common in Venezuela and is a significant source of risk. Brokers, particularly when colluding with corrupt government officials, can facilitate overseas transactions in a way that circumvents currency controls and masks payments from SOEs.
  • Cash deposits instead of wire transfers in the accounts of companies with Venezuelan government contracts.

In addition, FinCEN identifies these other financial red flags observed in transactions suspected of involving Venezuelan government corruption include:

  • Transactions for the purchase of real estate – primarily in the South Florida and Houston, Texas regions – involving current or former Venezuelan government officials, family members or associates that is not commensurate with their official salaries.
  • Corrupt Venezuelan government officials seeking to abuse a U.S. or foreign bank’s wealth management units by using complex financial transactions to move and hide corruption proceeds.

Overlap with Geographic Targeting Orders

It is noteworthy that two of the “red flags” identified by FinCEN its advisory directly relate to recent Geographic Targeting Orders (GTOs) issued by FinCEN. A GTO is an administrative anti-money laundering device, authorized by the Bank Secrecy Act and the USA Patriot Act, which is issued by the director of FinCEN requiring all domestic financial institutions or nonfinancial trades or businesses that exist within a geographic area to report on transactions any greater than a specified value.

One of the red flags identified by FinCEN are “[p]ayments involving Venezuelan government contracts that originate from non-official Venezuelan accounts, particular accounts located in jurisdictions outside of Venezuela (e.g., Panama or the Caribbean).” In its advisory, FinCEN noted that “[e]xport businesses in South Florida that specialize in sending goods to Venezuela are particularly vulnerable to trade-based money laundering (TBML) schemes. These include businesses that send heavy equipment, auto parts, and electronics (cell phones and other appliances) from Florida to Venezuela.” In April 2015, FinCEN issued a GTO focused on trade-based money laundering schemes used by drug cartels to launder illicit proceeds through electronics exporters in South Florida. At that time, FinCEN disclosed that an ongoing criminal investigation conducted jointly by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and the Miami Dade State Attorney’s Office South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force revealed that many electronics exporters are exploited as part of sophisticated trade-based money laundering schemes in which drug proceeds in the United States are converted into goods that are shipped to South America and sold for local currency, which is ultimately transferred to drug cartels.

Another “red flag” involves “[t]ransactions for the purchase of real estate – primarily in the South Floria and Houston, Texas regions – involving current or former Venezuelan government officials, family members or associates that is not commensurate with their official salaries.” The purchase of high-end real estate in the United States – particularly in an all-cash transaction – is a common money laundering vehicle, and FinCEN has taken aim at this practice by issuing a series of GTOs focused on cash purchases of luxury residential real estate in seven major metropolitan markets, including South Florida. In an advisory to the real estate industry issued a few weeks ago, FinCEN warned that “real estate transactions involving luxury property purchased through shell companies – particularly when conducted with cash and no financing – can be an attractive avenue for criminals to launder illegal proceeds while masking their identities.” In that same advisory, FinCEN specifically identified Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami and his frontman Samark Lopez Bello as a prime example of this practice:

An example of abuse of the luxury real estate sector involves current Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami and his frontman Samark Lopez Bello. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated El Aissami under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking. Lopez Bello was designated for providing material assistance, financial support, or goods or services in support of the international narcotics trafficking activities of, and acting for or on behalf of, El Aissami. In addition, OFAC designated shell companies tied to Lopez Bello that were used to hold real estate. Lopez Bello is tied to significant property and other assets, which were also blocked as a result of OFAC’s action.

While FinCEN’s advisory mentions real estate transactions taking place in South Florida and Houston, Texas, FinCEN does not presently have a GTO covering the real estate market in Houston.  This may suggest that an additional GTO may be issued by FinCEN to cover that particular geographic market.

Conclusion

FinCEN stated that it is providing this advisory to assist U.S. financial institutions in meeting their due diligence obligations that may apply to activity involving certain Venezuelan persons. To best meet these obligations, financial institutions should generally be aware of public reports of high-level corruption associated with senior Venezuelan foreign political figures, their family members, associates, or associated legal entities or arrangements. Financial institutions should assess the risk for laundering of the proceeds of public corruption associated with specific particular customers and transactions. Financial institutions also should be aware that OFAC has designated (and provided related guidance on) several Venezuelan persons and entities located in or related to Venezuela.