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Fraud & Reasonable Grounds to Suspect

One of the themes that was prevalent in Canadian AML for 2021 was the relatively low bar represented by “reasonable grounds to suspect” (RGS) and the types of transactions for which FINTRAC expected suspicious transaction reports (STRs) to be filed. One of our astute colleagues worked with us to craft some specific scenarios (the full version, including FINTRAC’s response, can be viewed here), and FINTRAC’s response seems to confirm a significant shift in position from previous discussions. Specifically, STRs are expected in cases of fraud, including cases in which the reporting entity’s client is believed to be the victim of fraud.

Here is a scenario that we asked about:

Scenario 2

A client reaches out to notify us that they sent the virtual currency to another party who promised them a generous short-term return. The client never received the promised funds and believes they have been defrauded. We review the customer account activity and do not find any anomalous activity either prior to or after the client sent the virtual currency to the wallet provided by the fraudster. The client appears to have sent their own funds to the fraudster and there is no account activity corresponding to any irregular transactions, including money mule indicators. Our client is simply a victim of fraud.

Based on strictly these facts, context and indicators, we have not reached reasonable grounds to suspect any money laundering or terrorist financing offences by our client. There may be downstream suspicion related to the wallet where the fraudulently obtained funds were sent but we do not have any suspicion based solely on our client’s transactions which include the transmission of virtual currency to that other wallet. We do not have any information or suspicion related to the other wallet except for the knowledge that our client’s virtual currency was sent to it.

Given the above, we believe no STR would be required. Could you please confirm our position? If the position taken here does not seem correct, please provide an underlying rationale.

And an excerpt from FINTRAC’s response:

In scenario 2, an STR should be submitted if the reporting entity reached reasonable grounds to suspect that the transaction or attempted transaction is related to fraud.

Not Just for Virtual Currency

While the scenario that we’ve provided is specific to virtual currency, the implications of this policy interpretation are not limited to transactions that involve virtual currencies. Every reporting entity type will deal with suspected and confirmed cases of fraud that touch their business models.

Why Does It Matter

To really get to why this matters so much, we need to first look at the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act (PCMLTFA), which is where the requirement is first defined in Section 7:

Transactions if reasonable grounds to suspect

7 Subject to section 10.1, every person or entity referred to in section 5 shall, in accordance with the regulations, report to the Centre every financial transaction that occurs or that is attempted in the course of their activities and in respect of which there are reasonable grounds to suspect that

(a) the transaction is related to the commission or the attempted commission of a money laundering offence; or

(b) the transaction is related to the commission or the attempted commission of a terrorist activity financing offence.

This is important as the provision of the PCMLTFA (the section number) is what’s listed in the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Administrative Monetary Penalties Regulations, where potential penalties are defined. Violations of Section 7 of the PCMLTFA are considered “very serious”. In turn, a “very serious” violation can lead to a penalty of up to $500,000 – for each instance.

If you’re a quantitative type quietly working out the rough number of fraud cases that your reporting entity has had recently, multiplying by $500,000, and feeling a bit nervous, you are not alone.

What’s Next?

While guidance and policy interpretations do not carry the force of law, this is often a distinction without a difference. Might a reporting entity take an appeal to federal court and win? Perhaps…though under the existing rules, that reporting entity’s name will be published (required where the violation is considered to be “very serious”), which for some reporting entities would have significant consequences, including the loss of vital banking partner relationships. Further, the cost of competent representation in a federal appeal process is well beyond the means of most small and mid-sized reporting entities.

Industry associations will, no doubt, continue to lead important conversations with FINTRAC and seek clarification for their members.

In the meantime, for most Canadian reporting entities, the most pragmatic decision will likely be to devise internal guidelines that include reporting STRs related to fraud cases.

Need a Hand?

If you want to make updates to your compliance program to reflect this new policy interpretation, or assistance with Canadian AML generally, please contact us.

FINTRAC’s 2016 Real Estate Brief

Quick Overview

A little over a month ago, FINTRAC published an operational brief for the Canadian real estate industry.  The brief was intended to assist reporting entities in meeting the obligations to report suspicious transactions or attempted suspicious transactions that related to potential money laundering or terrorist financing.  The publication provided some common indicators that may be present in a transaction that suggest money laundering or terrorist financing could be involved.

What Does it Mean?

The suspicious indicators provided by FINTRAC list circumstances or activities that might signal potentially illicit activity.  This does not mean that if one or more of the indicators are present that the transaction is definitely suspicious and must be reported to FINTRAC, it is meant to ensure that you are aware of the potential that suspicious activity may be taking place.  In that context, if you are involved in real estate transactions, you must be aware of the indicators in the brief.  If you do encounter a transaction that may be considered suspicious, you will need to collect additional information that will aid in your decision to report it or document why it was not considered suspicious.

What Now?

In order to ensure familiarity for anyone who interacts with customers and their transactions, the list of FINTRAC’s indicators should be included in your ongoing AML compliance training program.  Furthermore, the indicators should also be included in your procedure manuals, allowing easy access to the information.  Finally, the indicators should be incorporated into your Risk Assessment documentation.  Specifically, when determining customer risk and the controls used to effectively mitigate potential risks.

We’ve made it easier for you to integrate this content into your program by putting the indicators in a Word document for you.

Need a Hand?

Outlier has taken the list of indicators provided by FINTRAC and formatted them into an easy to use Microsoft Word document, which can be downloaded here: FINTRAC Indicators Specific to Real Estate Transactions.  This should allow companies within the real estate sector to easily update their documentation and ensure they are sufficiently monitoring for potentially suspicious activity.  If you aren’t sure what to do with this information and would like some assistance, please feel free to contact us.

Would You Recognize Real Estate Red Flags?

Rodney_FINTRACOn November 14th, 2016 FINTRAC released a brief for all reporting entities who may be involved in real estate transactions.  The briefing is intended as guidance to provide some examples of indicators that may be present in transactions that may suggest they are linked to money laundering or terrorist financing.  The indicators described have been taken from transactions suspected of being related to money laundering or terrorist financing reported internationally.  The briefing focuses on the potential risks and vulnerabilities within the real estate industry and provides suggestions on how to ensure reporting entities are sufficiently meeting suspicious transaction reporting obligations.

The briefing is meant to provide operational guidance given the small overall number of suspicious transactions that have been reported to FINTRAC by the Real Estate industry.  The briefing states that these indicators will be used by FINTRAC to assess compliance with your reporting obligations.  If you are a reporting entity that interacts with the real estate industry in one form or another, the indicators and scenarios outlined in this brief should be considered when updating your Risk Assessment and training materials.

To put things into perspective, though the actual size of the real estate market is difficult to determine precisely, CMHC has produced some statistics.  CMHC suggests that between 2003 and 2013 over $9 trillion of mortgage credits were negotiated and roughly 5 million sales took place through Multiple Listing Services (MLS).  In contrast, FINTRAC received only 127 Suspicious Transactions Reports (STRs) from real estate brokers, agents and developers and 152 by other types of reporting entities, such as banks and trust/loan companies.  To go a step further, in FINTRAC’s 2015 Annual Report, between April 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015, a total of 92,531 STRs were filed across all reporting entities.

 

re-strs-filed-vs-sales

This evidence supports FINTRAC’s assertion that operational guidance for the real estate industry is needed.

The indicators and examples covered in the brief outline numerous scenarios that may suggest that a transaction is related to a money laundering or terrorist financing offense.  It also speaks to how the appearance of legitimacy obfuscates the clarity of suspicious transactions and requires more than a just “gut feel”.  What is required is the consideration of the facts related to the transaction and their context.  Does the transaction with all the known factors, positive or negative, make sense?

 

What This Means to Your Business? 

First off, FINTRAC will be using the indicators provided to assess your compliance with reporting obligations.  This has a couple different applications.  The first being, does your AML compliance program documentation make reference to the suspicious indicators that are provided.  Basically, are staff aware of the elements that may be present in a transaction that would suggest money laundering or terrorist financing may be occurring?

Secondly, is there an oversight process to ensure if there are transactions that contain one or more of these indicators where an STR was not submitted, is reviewed?  If so, does the process ensure supporting evidence that the Compliance Officer reviewed the transaction and determined there were not reasonable grounds to suspect its relation to money laundering or terrorist financing?  When you encounter a transaction involving any of the indicators provided, it is very important that you collect as much information as possible to assist the Compliance Officer with their determination of whether there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a transaction, or attempted transaction, may be related to money laundering or terrorist financing.  Alternatively, even if none of the indicators provided by FINTRAC are present but we still feel there is “something off” about our customer’s transaction, speak with your Compliance Officer.  They will be able to provide some insight on additional information that may assist our decision.  Once you have collected any additional information you may still not feel comfortable, but this does not mean you cannot complete the transaction, but that you must be sure your Compliance Officer is provided with all the information, which includes our reason for the escalation, so that they can decide whether there are reasonable grounds to suspect it may be related to a money laundering or terrorist financing offense.  The Compliance Officer will document their decision and, if necessary, submit an STR to FINTRAC.

Need a Hand?

If you are a reporting entity that interacts with the real estate industry and would like assistance updating your AML compliance program documentation or simply have some questions, please contact us.

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