Transparency campaigners dismayed at clean bill of health for UK government
On Friday, 7 December the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a G7 initiative to combat money laundering and terrorist financing awarded the UK the highest rating it has ever given. The move was greeted with stark disbelief by anti-corruption and transparency campaigners such as Global Witness, Transparency International and Corruption Watch. They have a point. Many would echo their view that while the UK has taken a number of initiatives to combat money laundering in recent years, the flow of dirty money continues unabated.
A Global Witness campaigner stated, “Hundreds of billions of dirty pounds are washing through our banks and property market every year, as the government openly admits. Giving it so much credit before we’ve seen real change makes a mockery of the whole process.” Transparency International has often expressed the view that the FATF approach is fundamentally flawed. It is all too cosy. According to its January 2017 position paper: “Policy discussions within the confines of a largely closed, expert-driven anti-money laundering (AML) space have not generated sufficiently effective AML policies. No country is yet compliant with the international FATF standards.” The paper calls for greater openness and the involvement of civil society. Let us, however, add some context. As FATF rightly stated in announcing its report, the UK is the largest financial services provider in the world and, as a result of the exceptionally large volume of funds flowing through its financial sector, the country also faces a significant risk that some of these funds have links to crime and terrorism.
The FATF report emphasizes that the UK government has a strong understanding of these risks and has implemented a raft of policies, strategies and proactive initiatives to address them. It states that the UK aggressively pursues money laundering and terrorist financing investigations and prosecutions, achieving 1400 convictions each year for money laundering. And it adds that the UK’s overall anti-money laundering and counter financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime is effective in many respects. Nevertheless, when it comes to the shortcomings, FATF’s criticisms of UK efforts are ultra-cautious. It says that “the intensity of supervision is not consistent across all [financial and non-financial] sectors and UK needs to ensure that supervision of all entities is fully in line with the significant risks the UK faces.” It adds that the UK “needs to address certain areas of weakness, such as supervision and the reporting and investigation of suspicious transactions. However, the country has demonstrated a robust level of understanding of its risks, a range of proactive measures and initiatives to counter the significant risks identified and plays a leading role in promoting global effective implementation of AML/CFT measures”
The Global Laundromat
So where are we to find the truth between these extremes? We believe that there is truth in both positions, but neither the optimism (some would say complacency) of FATF nor the “demands” for “tougher action” of the campaigners can offer a comprehensive answer. It is true that the United Kingdom has had some spectacular successes in recent months. An example was the clampdown on Scottish Limited Partnerships (SLPs).
According to the Wall Street Journal, these “are used by thousands of legitimate businesses, including the private-equity and pension industries, bringing more than £30 billion ($38 billion) a year in investment to the UK”. However, SLPs have also been an important conduit for dirty money and especially Russian dirty money, including $20 billion in a scandal known as the Global Laundromat. The UK responded with new laws in 2017 to make their ownership more transparent and claims that this has led to an 80% drop in the number of new registrants. In July of this year, the UK also laid out a broader set of proposals requiring foreign companies and other legal entities owning UK real estate to reveal the true beneficial owners.
But these measures received a lukewarm welcome by Global Witness and other campaigners who pointed to the lack of prosecutions, demanding that the authorities make better use of the information it receives from both financial institutions and non-financial institutions (e.g. legal practices).
Technology must be better employed
Sifting through information to identify the ultimate beneficial owners behind ghost companies is no easy matter. In the 2014 KPMG Global AML Survey, respondents stated that “identifying complex ownership structures is the most challenging area in the implementation of a risk-based approach to KYC collection”. Part of the problem is that thousands of offshore operations and others with a complex ownership structure are perfectly legitimate, so how does a bank or a lawyer identify those that are being used for fraudulent financial transactions, without scaring away business? They need to be extremely careful to distinguish between what’s legit and what isn’t. Many businesses use sophisticated legal structures for valid reasons such as asset protection, estate planning, privacy and confidentiality.
Technology has become essential to help financial institutions and their legal partners to better understand and document ultimate beneficial owners, identify suspect activities and decide the appropriate level of due diligence required. Basically, the whole industry is banking (no pun intended) on big data, machine learning (ML), and artificial intelligence (AI) to help simplify complex processes and automate repetitive tasks. Even though, these buzzwords have become a hot topic many don’t even know the difference between the two and use the terms interchangeably. ML refers to a computer system that has the ability to learn how to do specific tasks, in contrast, AI enables computer systems to perform tasks done by humans. While AI can replace some rudimentary tasks, I wouldn’t say that compliance analysts are one of them. Therefore, by applying these technologies, the compliance staff would have more time to deal with non-routine events and complex cases as well as having better information through a cleaner, more traceable process to make objective decisions.
Of course, machine learning models can process tremendous amounts of data, but ML systems still need to learn the difference between a false positive and a false negative and that in real-time. First, there simply isn’t enough well-structured data available at most financial institutions that can be used for teaching these ML / AI models. IBM’s Watson, named after a Sherlock Holmes character, has learned this hard way. As with every new technology wave CRM, Business Intelligence, and Predictive analytics, etc. tech companies can’t wait to sprinkle these terms on every bit of their software like fairy dust. Of course, consulting firms are the biggest advocates who can’t wait to implement such solutions!
As of June 2017, the Watson AI platform had been trained on six types of cancers which took years and thousands of medical doctors.
Second, bad actors are always adjusting and trying new schemas and third, the financial services landscape is continually changing leaving ML and AI platforms with a real-time knowledge gap. However, appealing this technology might sound to the people watching the bottom-line. The reality is that ML / AI platforms require months and in many cases years of laborious training, as experts must feed vast quantities of well-structured data into the platform for it to be able to draw meaningful conclusions and those conclusions are only based upon the data that it has been trained on.
Learning transaction behaviour of similar customers
Pinpointing customers with similar transactions behaviour
Discovering transaction activity of customers with similar traits (business type, geographic location, age, etc.)
Identifying outlier transactions and outlier customers
Learning money laundering, fraud, and terrorist financing typologies and identify typology specific risks
Dynamically learning correlations between alerts which produced verified suspicious activity reports and those that generate false positives
Continuously analyzing false-positive alerts and learn common predictors
For the most part, financial crime will be driven by advances in technology and this marriage of regulation and technology is not new, in itself. However, with the continual increase in regulatory expectations, the staggering levels of cyber-attacks against financial institutions and the FinTech disruption makes RegTech the perfect partner.
In brief, RegTechs address many gaps in today’s financial crime program by improving automation in the detection of suspicious activity, which would be a significant move from monitoring to preventing financial crime while being more cost-effective and agile!
However, financial institutions have been done this path before putting their faith in technology but this time they would be wise to thoroughly start with small-scale pilot projects. Financial institutions need to invest in data quality as it is a key component of any successful financial crime program. High-quality data leads to better analytics and insights that are so important to accurately teaching ML and AI models but also drive better decisions. Therefore, transparency campaigners would do well to campaign for the adoption of such technological solutions. These will provide the infrastructure needed to meet their demands and enable the change they seek.
Earlier this month the Basel Institute on Governance announced the release of the Basel Centre for Asset Recovery’s Basel Anti-Money Laundering Index for 2018 – the so-called “AML Index”. It is the seventh such report assessing countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing. A free public version of the report can be found here while a more detailed expert edition, covering virtually every country in the world, is available at cost. It makes grim reading.
The report states that “public transparency is showing signs of decline, with governments making less information available about how they manage public funds.” The key trend is a lack of measurable progress. In fact, the report finds that “42% of countries have worsened their risk scores between 2017 and 2018. Almost 37% of countries now have a worse risk score than they did in 2012”.Though some countries are clearly much less risky than others, the report shows that we should take nothing for granted. Countries that were once considered very safe, but which have been put under the spotlight of the new FATF methodology, look somewhat riskier. “The recent Danske Bank scandal seems to confirm the observation that there are big issues with the effectiveness of money laundering supervision in countries generally regarded as low-risk”, according to the report.
A key development is that the FATF methodology not only measures technical compliance but also implementation effectiveness, and the report warns governments and regulatory bodies against hiding behind formal compliance structures and taking a “tick-the-box” approach to anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) frameworks. The report authors rely heavily on the FATF methodology together with the Financial Secrecy Index and the US State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR).
The report warns that there is no country on the planet that can be regarded as zero risk, and highlights points that we have frequently raised here at the AML Knowledge Centre:
“… many low-risk countries have issues that need to be addressed, for example, related to beneficial ownership or politically exposed persons. What’s more, criminals are ingenious at finding new ways to launder money, and governments need to be constantly on the lookout and adjust their legal, institutional and policy responses accordingly.
“In other words, a low-risk score in the Basel AML Index is not a ticket to taking a leave from AML/CFT vigilance, either for a country’s administration or for companies and financial institutions doing business in that country.”
AML Compliance – meeting the challenge
While the AML Index’s methodology is open to criticism (and has been criticized) we think it is right to put the main emphasis on the quality and effectiveness of the AML/CFT framework. However, it is difficult to legislate for best practice in commercial organizations. Our view is that far too many organisations are reliant on business intelligence systems that may support technical compliance but are often ineffective, or weak, in meeting the challenge in any meaningful way. Typically, BI was developed to enable segmentation for mass marketing purposes. However, just because a person or a legal identity entity falls into a high-risk segment, this does not make him or it a money launderer. And declining to take an honest person’s business is not good for your reputation.
So how have financial institutions calibrated their AML programs to balance risk and reputation? Many larger firms have invested in offshore AML entities to check through millions of alerts, the vast majority of which are false positives. A by-product of traditional AML transaction monitoring systems. And with so many false positives, false negatives are bound to slip through.
Moreover, newer technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are spreading optimism throughout their industry. However, these technologies are only as good as the data that is used to train these systems, whereas criminals are constantly inventing new ways of cheating the system, as the AML Index report emphasizes. All of this can impose an intolerable cost burden even for larger companies, let alone small banks and financial institutions. Therefore, strengthening your first line of defence, i.e. tighten up your Know Your Customer processes, is no longer an option but a necessity. This may or may not involve investment in a specific technology solution, but the essential aim is to implement procedures robust enough to identify bad actors at the onboarding stage, rather than relying on AML transaction monitoring systems to identify them when it is already too late.
“Top Misconceptions of Cryptocurrency as a Payment System”
On March 19, 2018 Donald Trump issued a executive order banning Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s oil-backed cryptocurrency, the petro.In case you missed it, Donald Trump’s formal statement notes,“in light of recent actions taken by the Maduro regime to attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions by issuing a digital currency in a process that Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly has denounced as unlawful, hereby order as follows:Section 1. (a) All transactions related to, provision of financing for, and other dealings in, by a United States person or within the United States, any digital currency, digital coin, or digital token, that was issued by, for, or on behalf of the Government of Venezuela on or after January 9, 2018, are prohibited as of the effective date of this order.(b) The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section apply except to the extent provided by statutes, or in regulations, orders, directives, or licenses that may be issued pursuant to this order, and notwithstanding any contract entered into or any license or permit granted before the effective date of this order.”While this executive order was primarily directed at Venezuela, new information from TIME reveals that the petro may actually have been a collaboration between Venezuela and Russia to circumvent U.S. sanctions.According to TIME’s source, an executive at a Russian state bank who deals with cryptocurrencies, “senior advisers to the Kremlin have overseen the effort in Venezuela, and President Vladimir Putin signed off on it last year.”Additionally, the report claims that Russian billionaires Dennis Druzhkov and Fyodor Bogorodsky helped advise Maduro while building the petro.If the collaboration between Russia and Venezuela is proven true, it wouldn’t exactly be much of a surprise. The Russian sentiment that the U.S. dollar has too much power on the global economy is not new by any means. Just last month, Andrei Kostin, the head of Russia’s second-largest bank, advocated and pushed for Russia’s promotion of other currencies in international trade to limit the impact the U.S. Dollar has on the global financial system.
The Venezuelan Sandbox Hypothesis
As TIME suggests, the Russians may have used Venezuela as an experiment to test a decentralized currency without the risk of bringing down their ruble.Venezuela, whose economy has been in shambles for some months now, seems like the perfect candidate. The U.S. sanctions have played a large role in destabilizing the Venezuelan bolivar, and also pushed the Maduro regime more dependent on Russia for investments and loans to keep Venezuela (barely) above water.
The Kremlin has not responded to questions regarding the petro, and the Finance Ministry in Moscow insisted that Russia’s financial authorities played no part in the petro’s creation.While there isn’t any substantive proof or formal statement that confirms the reality of Russia’s involvement in the Petro, or their objectives if they were involved, these discoveries by TIME will play an interesting role in the development of the “blockchain as a tool for international economic dominance” narrative.
Money laundering in Russia has its own characteristics. In the normal world money laundering is the transformation of “illicit money” into “clean money”: criminals selling drugs to invest in real estate, in Russia it is different. There money laundering mostly means turning “clean money” into “illicit money”, for example, by evading taxes or using illegal schemes to withdraw money from the country that could be both illicit and clean. Сompanies trying to transfer legal money abroad because investing in Russia is too dangerous: high political risks, weak legal infrastructure, criminalization and corruption of the economy. To withdraw money from the country companies need an approval from the Central Bank and an economic purpose like a financial or commercial transaction. Along with the money earned in Russia by legal means, there are also sources of illegally earned money:
Where the illegal money comes from?
Sources of legal funds in Russia can be divided into 4 major categories:
Illegal sale of natural resources: oil, natural gas, metals, etc .;
Smuggling of alcohol, tobacco, weapons, and drugs;
Income derived from such “classic” types of illegal activities, like extortion (racketeering), prostitution, theft, fraud, theft of cars, etc .;
Offenses “of white-collar workers”: the plunder of state property and funds, false declarations of income and profits, tax evasion, illegal “flight” of capital.
GAFI experts note that foreign sources of illegal funds entering Russia and the countries of the former USSR for laundering are little known.
How does the money laundering work in Russia?
The most common method of money laundering in Russia is the opening of individual accounts at financial institutions, placing there significant amounts in cash and then transferring them to the accounts of fake companies, which in turn transfer them to another location.
Other methods include the use of counterfeit accounts, double bookkeeping and contract fraud. A typical scenario involves the transfer of funds in foreign currency to the account of a fake company overseas, allegedly for the purpose of financing a commercial transaction. A false contract for the purchase of goods from a shell company is submitted to the bank as evidence of the commercial need for transfer of funds. Once the money is transferred, legalized funds can be freely transferred to another account or converted into cash. This method is also used to steal public funds.
To launder proceeds from illegal activities in the region, banks, exchange offices, non-bank financial institutions, casinos and real estate companies are also used. Most of the laundering operations are carried out using cash or wire transfers, as well as bank and traveler’s checks.
Global Laundry allowed to launder more than $ 80 billion
According to documents received by the international organization of investigative journalists OCCRP, for three years from Russia was withdrawn at least $ 20 billion, but the real amount can be $ 80 billion. Journalists believe that about 500 people were involved in the corruption scheme named Global Laundry, including oligarchs, bankers and individuals.
Money laundering usually took place according to the following scheme: participants registered, for example, in the UK, two fake companies, the real owners of which were hiding behind a chain of off-shores. The authors of the investigation assume that both enterprises actually had the same owners. Then both companies signed a loan agreement, according to which company “A” lends a large sum from company “B”. In reality, the deal was fictitious, and no money was given to company “A”.
The contract stipulated that commercial structures from Russia would act as guarantors of repayment of the loan, which in almost all cases was headed by a Moldovan citizen. The company “A” then declared itself insolvent, and obligations to repay the debt automatically passed to Russian companies.
As the Moldovan citizen was at the head of Russian companies, the lawsuits had to be considered in the Moldovan court. Corrupt judges confirmed the existence of the debt and issued an order to recover from the guarantors the required amount. According to the investigation, more than 20 Moldovan judges were involved in the scheme. Some of them are under investigation now, and the others have resigned.
After the court decision, the bailiffs, who were also involved in the scheme, opened accounts with Moldindconbank in Moldova. To these accounts, Russian companies had to transfer money, thus closing a fictitious debt.
n the end, the money was transferred to the account of the “creditor company”, for the opening of which the Latvian bank Trasta Komercbanka was always selected. Thus, the money legalized by the Moldovan court was on the territory of the EU: swindlers could now dispose of the money at their discretion and transfer them to accounts in other countries.
Mafia capital and money laundering
Criminal groups continue to make significant investments in real estate, hotels, restaurants and other businesses in some countries of Western Europe. Funds for these purposes often come through intermediary offshore companies. The establishment of links between organized Russian and foreign criminal gangs is noted.
In Russia today there are objective economic conditions for the active legalization of criminal capital. Illicit drug trafficking, the trade in arms and radioactive materials, prostitution, underground gambling, organized crime, illegal financial and banking activities, the plundering of public funds and funds, license-free video business, illegal use of copyright and trademark rights, illegal production of alcohol are all more than favorable conditions for the emergence of significant by the standards of even Western states of illegal capital.
The presence of such money in the country is recognized by the international community as a sufficient condition for large-scale criminal financial operations.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that a huge part of the economic turnover in Russia is served by cash. According to some estimates, “cash” provides up to 60 per cent of the economic turnover (compared to 20 – in the US, or 40 – in Germany). Cash turnover significantly reduces the possibility of introducing effective reporting by financial and other institutions (casinos, salons for the sale of expensive cars, etc.) for transactions with a certain “ceiling”.
In addition to objective circumstances (the “shadow” economic foundation) is not enough to carry out large-scale laundering operations. It is necessary to have well-developed connections with the main financial centres of the world: London, New York, Tokyo, Zurich, Frankfurt am Main, etc.
The facts show: such links are established and expanded by Russian criminals. Active counter-movement of money began. Simplified departure from Russia – there was a legal possibility of investing money in the foreign real estate, securities, luxury goods. Such operations are carried out even during tourist trips to foreign financial centres and “tax havens”.
On the other hand, Russia is rapidly becoming the sphere of application of foreign criminal capital. For example, the Association of Russian Banks believes that over the past two years about 16 billion dollars of Mafia capital have migrated to Russia. The “dollarization” of the domestic economy is growing, and according to various estimates, there are 12 billion of US dollars circulating in Russia in 2018. The currency in the country has long been freely convertible in thousands of exchange offices.
More than 3 thousand criminal groups specialize in the legalization of criminal proceeds, almost 1.5 thousand of these groups formed their own legal economic organizations for this purpose. Up to 80% of the economic facilities of the non-state sector of the economy are under the control of criminal communities that charge them, including more than 500 banks, about 50 exchanges, almost the entire wholesale and retail trade network. According to expert estimates, 2/3 of the legalized funds received in this way are invested in the development of criminal entrepreneurship, 1/5 of it is spent on the acquisition of real estate. A characteristic feature of money laundering technologies in Russia is the illegal cashing out of funds in order to conceal traces of origin and subsequent involvement in illegal or legal economic circulation.
“Top Misconceptions of Cryptocurrency as a Payment System”
Cryptocurrencies have been in use around the world, especially in the developed world (Africa) ever since they came onto the scene after the end of the global financial crisis in 2009. In Europe, the US and industrialized parts of Asia they have become mainstream currencies. However, in Africa in general and Ghana in particular, cryptocurrency use is still in its infancy. A few weeks ago, Ghana’s central bank, the Bank of Ghana, was compelled to even issue a statement on cryptocurrencies and their use in Ghana. The Bank of Ghana in its statement sought to give the impression that cryptocurrency usage in Ghana was not yet formally regulated and therefore cautioned the general public to be careful in dealings involving cryptocurrencies especially with institutions that purport to deal in them.
Dealing with cryptocurrencies is illegal?
This statement from the Bank of Ghana was a bit confusing for many people because some people interpreted it to mean that dealing in cryptocurrencies in Ghana was somehow illegal. However, all that the Bank of Ghana sought to do was to make the statement that it had not yet put in place regulations with respect to cryptocurrencies as a means of payments. The Bank of Ghana is responsible for regulating all payments and payment systems in Ghana.
A few of the players in the country who deal in cryptocurrencies granted interviews to media houses to correct the impression that dealing with cryptocurrencies was illegal. They had to assure the public that what the Bank of Ghana really meant by its statement was just to alert the public that it has not yet put in place binding regulations on cryptocurrencies to protect them from potential fraudsters and that it was in the process of consulting with relevant stakeholders and formulating the needed regulations for cryptocurrency usage in Ghana.
Has Ghana been slow at cryptocurrency adoption to compare with other African states?
Cryptocurrencies have been in use by people in Ghana for a few years now. However, their usage in Ghana is not currently big enough as compared to other African states like South Africa and Kenya. South Africa and Kenya have a more developed and vibrant cryptocurrency regime as compared to Ghana. Ghana has been slow at cryptocurrency adoption mainly because e-commerce generally is in its infancy as compared to other places on the African continent and beyond. Regulation in Ghana also only arises when an activity becomes so prominent that abuses are feared by regulators, consequently regulation is generally slow.
The Future for cryptocurrencies in Ghana.
All this notwithstanding, cryptocurrency usage in Ghana appears to have a bright future because it appears to be following the pattern of “mobile money” evolution in Ghana and Africa. Mobile money usage in Ghana and Africa was not keenly welcomed by the central bank and other financial institutions at the onset. Now mobile money transactions form a chunk of all financial and payment transactions in Ghana and many other African countries, simply for its convenience and ease of usage. I predict the same for cryptocurrency usage in Ghana in particular and Africa in general especially when the needed regulations are finally put in place.
It will definitely catch on!
“Top Misconceptions of Cryptocurrency as a Payment System”
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