U.S. Treasury issues AML ‘priorities’ but experts cite minimal value to compliance
20 Jul 2021

The U.S. Treasury Department’s anti-money laundering (AML) unit recently issued the much-anticipated AML priorities Congress demanded in the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020, a legislative effort to clarify where financial institutions should focus their efforts to more effectively police transactions for illicit activity.

Some experts said the AML and counter-terror finance priorities issued by Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) — the first of their kind — were disappointing because they cited well-known threats without adding value. Still, the priorities might be of potential use to those institutions working to close gaps in their risk assessments, they said.

“Today’s publication of government-wide (priorities) is a significant milestone in FinCEN’s efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the nation’s AML/CFT [countering the financing of terrorism] regime and to foster greater public-private partnerships,” noted FinCEN Acting Director Michael Mosier in a written statement. “The priorities reflect the U.S. government’s view of the threat landscape — highlighting longstanding threats like corruption, fraud, and international terrorism, as well as rapidly evolving and acute threats, such as domestic terrorism, ransomware, and other cybercrime.”

How to approach the priorities

FinCEN issued the priorities in consultation with other Treasury units, as well as federal and state regulators, law enforcement, and national security agencies, the bureau said. FinCEN said the priorities — “in no particular order” — include corruption, cybercrime, domestic and international terrorist financing, fraud, transnational criminal organizations, drug trafficking organizations, human trafficking and human smuggling, and proliferation financing. In addition to the priorities, FinCEN also issued statements — one for banks and one for non-bank financial institutions — “to provide guidance to covered institutions on how to approach the priorities.” The statements were similar, although they cited ongoing efforts involving different regulators.

The documents state that FinCEN’s priorities do “not create an immediate change to Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) requirements or supervisory expectations” for financial institutions. Instead, FinCEN and the regulators will be working to revise regulations, “as necessary, to address how the AML/CFT priorities will be incorporated into banks’ BSA requirements,” the Treasury bureau said.

The priorities, and the statements, “are intended to assist covered institutions in their AML/CFT efforts and enable those institutions to prioritize the use of their compliance resources,” FinCEN said. “In particular, the priorities highlight key threat trends as well as informational resources that can assist covered institutions in managing their risks. Coupled with the Department of the Treasury’s 2020 Illicit Finance Strategy and 2018 National Risk Assessment, the priorities aim to help covered institutions assess their risks, tailor their AML programs, and prioritize their resources,” FinCEN added.

The Treasury bureau added that it will update the priorities at least once every four years to highlight new or evolving threats, as required by the AML Act. It also noted that “covered institutions are not required to make any immediate changes to their risk-based AML programs” in response to the priorities.

“FinCEN will propose implementing regulations in the coming months. FinCEN, the federal functional regulators, and state regulators will not examine any covered institution for the incorporation of the priorities into their risk-based AML programs until implementing regulations have been promulgated,” FinCEN said. “Nevertheless, in preparation for any new requirements when those final rules are published, covered institutions may wish to start considering how they will incorporate the AML/CFT priorities into their risk-based AML programs.”

Experts find little new in FinCEN priorities

The latter point — the lack of any concrete step forward — confounded some experts who were eagerly awaiting the issuance of the priorities.

“Make sure your program addresses corruption, cybercrime, virtual currency, foreign and domestic terrorist financing, fraud, transnational criminal organizations, drug trafficking organizations, human trafficking, human smuggling, and proliferation financing. How is any of this new, or even actionable?” asked Jim Richards, former BSA compliance officer with Wells Fargo who now runs RegTech Consulting LLC, adding that FinCEN’s list “is pretty much every threat or risk that banks already have to address with their programs.”

By Brett Wolf, Reuters, 19 July 2021

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