Banking Issues Continue While Surety Bond Underwriters Embrace MSBs

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Authored by: Brian Nelson, Bond Manager at Alpha Surety Brokerage

Why are MSBs are locked out of the traditional banking sector while at the same time surety bonds are becoming cheaper and underwriting requirements continue to loosen? I know I’m oversimplifying this a bit, but surety bond underwriters understand that claims on MSB bonds are typically caused by a breach in compliance. Naturally, banks understand the same. However, as banks continue to close MSB accounts, surety underwriters are issuing approvals on lower underwriting requirements and at premiums that have previously been reserved for only the top revenue companies. It used to be that new money transmitters, check cashers and prepaid access companies would pay at least 3% for their bonds if they could even qualify based on verification of substantial personal assets or substantial cash in the business bank account. Things have changed. Recently, a company with neither a large amount of cash in the bank or a strong personal financial statement for the owner, received an approval for 1.5% on a multi-million dollar aggregate bond need. According to the underwriters, the reason for the low quote was because competition for these types of bonds has increased significantly. (For a state-by-state list of bond amount requirements, click State by State Bonds.)

Wouldn’t it be nice if banks felt the same way about competition? MSBs around the country are dying to find banking partners that will treat them fairly. I recently spoke to an MSB about a potential partnership that would have brought them a substantial amount of new business. After my presentation, I was told that their bank wouldn’t allow for them to partner with other MSBs. I’m still confused by the comment because both entities involved in the partnership would have been licensed money transmitters. Since when does a partnership between two licensed companies create a compliance risk for banks?

Unfortunately, it is the poor, underserved and deprived populations that suffer the most when MSBs are cutoff from serving them. Organizations like the NMTA, NBPCA and others have been fighting the banking battle for years with little to no progress. We can only hope that newer industries like the digital currency and the electronic payments industries will bring their resources, connections and energy to the fight. Without them, I’m afraid we’ll be talking about the same banking issues for many more years.

If you know of any groups or efforts focused on the non-banking issue, please share details in the comments section.

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Don’t Bite the Hand that Feeds Millions

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Amidst all of the regulatory oversight and compliance scrutiny MSBs are faced with in the United States, it is easy to lose sight of how noble our cause is. Many of the world’s nations rely on money remittances to support their citizens. Our job as industry participants is to provide our niche client base with simple and affordable ways to support the world economy through international money transfers. It doesn’t take long to see the value US money transmitters bring to the underdeveloped nations after spending time within their borders.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit an underdeveloped region on a trip to setup correspondent partnerships and bank accounts for a money remittance company I’m involved in. I couldn’t have been more impressed by the region and their willingness to work with us. I was also astounded by the genuine gratitude the business and government leaders showed us after discussing our business plan.

Never before had they been approached by a money transmitter focused solely on supporting and growing their economy. Both banks and government entities welcomed us with open arms. Not only were they excited about our partnership, but they wanted to know how they could further help us reach their citizens. Make no mistake, there are other US money transmitters sending funds into their countries, but it was apparent that the perception of these mega companies was that they were extracting more value than providing. It takes more than a capitalistic desire to make money in order to make a positive difference in the lives of others and our new friends saw the difference immediately.

The highlight of the trip was receiving an invitation to present our business at an upcoming banking and economic development association conference for the region. I know my story is not unique, as many of you launched your businesses with the purpose of serving your people, but this experience opened my eyes to the positive impact our industry is making throughout the world. Regulatory, compliance and banking concerns are not going away, but at least we can take pleasure in the service we are providing millions of people across the globe.

~ Brian Nelson

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As a quick plug, I’m the event coordinator for the upcoming Virtual Currency Compliance Conference (VC3 2014) being hosted by the NMTA in New York on August 13th. We’d love to see you there. We’ll have the event page up shortly on http://www.nmta.us

Myth Busters: No Widespread Use of Bitcoin for Crime

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***The following is a Bloomberg article written by Bitcoin insider, Carter Dougherty, and re-posted with his permission.***

Get the article on Bloomberg.com here.

Treasury’s Cohen Sees No Widespread Use of Bitcoin for Crime (1)
2014-03-18 15:55:31.842 GMT

By Carter Dougherty and Greg Farrell

The U.S. government sees no evidence of “widespread” use of virtual currencies such as Bitcoin to evade sanctions or finance terrorism, the Treasury Department’s top official targeting money laundering said.

“Terrorists generally need ‘real’ currency, not virtual currency, to pay their expenses -– such as salaries, bribes, weapons, travel, and safe houses,’ David S. Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

‘‘The same is true for those seeking to evade sanctions,’’ Cohen said in a speech at the New York headquarters of Bloomberg News.

Governments around the world are grappling with how to classify or regulate virtual currencies such as Bitcoin. Authorities in Russia, China and Israel have sought to restrict the payment system, while Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in January the U.S. needed more time to assess the ‘‘phenomenon’’ to ensure it isn’t used for unlawful purposes.

Cohen rejected arguments that regulation would drive virtual currency innovation out of the U.S., saying ‘‘the opposite is true’’ in this new industry.

‘‘Financial transparency can help bring stability to the virtual currency market and security to its users and investors,’’ Cohen said. ‘‘And that is what we are trying to do through sensible, flexible and -– to use a word from the tech world -– scalable regulation.’’

At the same time, Cohen emphasized that the government would err on the side of squeezing innovation if necessary for law enforcement purposes.

Choosing Transparency

‘‘There may be situations where we need to choose between innovation and transparency,’’ Cohen said. ‘‘Let me be clear: When forced to choose between the two, we will err on the side of transparency.’’

Cohen said that some virtual currency companies haven’t registered with Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a requirement established in March 2013, and aren’t following record keeping and reporting requirements.

‘‘Those that do not comply with these rules should understand that their actions will have consequences,” Cohen said.

The Treasury Department’s Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group will include a member of the virtual-currency community to help make regulations “better informed and more effective,” Cohen said, without saying who it will be.

The department has urged industry leaders to devise ways to prevent criminal use of virtual currencies rather than develop technology that “further obscures financial trails,” he said.

Bitcoin Origins

Bitcoin, the most popular digital currency, emerged from a 2008 paper written by a programmer or group of programmers under the name Satoshi Nakamoto. It uses a public ledger to record transactions made under pseudonyms, an aspect of the system that has fed mistrust among law enforcement.

The price for Bitcoins soared in November, topping $1,000 for the first time, as merchants including Overstock.com began accepting the virtual currency and speculators anticipated broader use of digital money.

Prices dropped this year amid mounting U.S. prosecutions of Bitcoin-linked money laundering, concerns that governments would restrict the currency and market disruptions including hacker attacks on online exchanges.

Bitcoin prices declined about 1 percent today, and stood at $612.50 at 11:08 a.m. New York time, according to the CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index.

‘Grossly Inefficient’

The decline was “likely” connected to the outage at the website Blockchain.info, a popular Bitcoin wallet provider, said Jonathan Levin, a co-founder of Coinometrics, a research firm in Oxford, U.K. He also said that digital currency markets are “grossly inefficient.”

Cohen said that the Treasury Department places “real value” on financial innovation such as digital currencies.

“Advancements in technology that allow entrepreneurs and businesses to innovate, grow and hire are crucial to our country’s long-term success,” Cohen said.

Cohen has served as undersecretary since 2011. He first joined the Treasury in 1999 and, while working for its general counsel, helped draft part of the Patriot Act that granted the regulator new tools to thwart money laundering and terrorist financing after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Treasury’s office for terrorism and financial intelligence seeks to prevent criminal networks from using the U.S. financial system and to cut off funding for terrorists. It includes the Office of Foreign Assets Control that helps enforce sanctions on nations, such as Iran, that have a history of providing support to terrorist groups.

Accepting Applications

New York financial regulators also have been working on a response to Bitcoin. Benjamin Lawsky, the state’s superintendent of financial services, announced last week that his office is accepting applications to operate exchanges for Bitcoin and other digital currencies. He plans to propose a set of rules for virtual-currency firms by mid-year.

Last month’s collapse of Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, in which some customers lost their holdings, shows the need for “robust standards for consumer protection, cyber security and anti-money laundering compliance,” Lawsky said.

Federal authorities have been targeting misuse. Last year, they shut down Silk Road, an online drug and weapons bazaar where Bitcoin was the preferred medium of exchange. In January, they arrested Charlie Shrem, a Bitcoin entrepreneur, on charges of money laundering. He has denied the allegations.

To contact the reporters on this story: Carter Dougherty in Washington at cdougherty6@bloomberg.net; Greg Farrell in New York at gregfarrell@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Maura Reynolds at mreynolds34@bloomberg.net Anthony Gnoffo, Gregory Mott

NY Virtual Currency Announcement Misleads

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The excitement and enthusiasm of Digital Currency entrepreneurs was palatable after the recent announcement by Ben Lawsky, New York’s first Superintendent of Financial Services, that the state would begin accepting license applications by Digital Currency exchangers. However, less than 48 hours after Lawsky’s announcement, feelings of frustration have replaced the excitement. Bitcoiners are quickly learning that the announcement does not apply to the majority of companies in the space.

Why are Digital Currency industry members so upset and frustrated?

New York is only accepting applications from “pure” exchanges. That is to say, exchanges that do not offer any other services or products other than exchange services.

Based on that information, the heavily funded, well-known and respected Bitcoin companies like Coinbase, Circle, Kraken, itBit or BitStamp are not being allowed to submit applications to the state. And it’s not likely that smaller, less visible companies will submit money transmitter applications because of the surety bond requirement. The $500,000 surety bond, which is required to be submitted with the NY application, is not attainable for these companies.

The motives behind this announcement are somewhat suspect. Having such a narrow scope of possible applicants doesn’t make much sense. If Lawsky and his team in New York really want to protect consumers by issuing Digital Currency specific regulations, then they should encourage the big industry participants to submit applications, not lock them out. And on the subject of consumer protection, a singular focus on exchanges for consumer protection purposes is shortsighted and will be found lacking. New York will accomplish little with this current application acceptance strategy.

– Brian Nelson

Customer’s Customer Compliance Issue

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I was reading an interesting article entitled ‘ Argor-Heraeus Rejects Allegations on Congo Conflict Gold’ By James Kraus of Bloomberg  – Nov 4, 2013.  Essentially, a non-profit Swiss organization by the name of TRIAL was accusing Argor-Heraeus SA , a Swiss gold refiner of illegally refining gold originating from the war torn – Democratic of Congo for the years 2004-2005.

TRIAL is stating the Argor-Heraeus refined close to 3 tons of gold pillaged from an armed group which used the gold proceeds to finance its operations.  From the article, Argor-Heraeus received the questioned gold from its customer Hussar Limited.

My commentary of this article is not to give my opinion as to whether the TRIAL accusation is true or not.  My interest is solely from a ‘Know your Customer’ point of view.  Most compliance experts would agree that a rigorous Know Your Customer policy would be one of the most important criteria in protecting an institution against money laundering or the financing of terrorism.

Should Hussar Limited have been the customer and thus delivered the gold for refining at Argor-Heraeus then the latter institution would have executed the KYC ( Know Your Customer) due diligence on the former institution.  Apart from the obvious customer identification and verification procedures,  Argor-Heraeus would have evaluated Hussar’s own compliance procedures on its own customers.   And most likely this documentation would have been satisfactory and thus Hussar would have passed the Customer Acceptance process for Argor-Heraeus.

But now it appears that the gold actually came from illegal sources via Hussar Limited and then passed on to Argor-Heraeus.   The question now becomes as to how much should Argor-Heraeus have to know as to its customer’s customer.  And should Argor-Heraeus have actually o assessed whether Hussar Limited was adhering to its own AML policy of accepting gold from only legitimate sources.  This is a tough call especially at least in the beginning stages of the transaction history.  Now, maybe if the transaction kept on continuing over time with larger volumes, then ‘red flags’ would have appeared.

Then once ‘Red Flags’ appear, the institution has to impose enhanced due diligence which perhaps Argos-Heraeus did.    And it does appear that Argor-Heraeus must have been concerned because by 2005 it had terminated the business with Hussar Limited.

Of course in retrospect, it is so easy to say the Argor-Heraeus should have known from the beginning that the origin of the gold was from illegal means.  And this observation could or could not be true  – I certainly do not know.  And we have to remember that the incident occurred in 2004 and not 2013 where we now work in a heightened state of compliance alert.  This situation is of interest because as a financial institution today, we just cannot take for granted anymore as to the compliance acceptance of a customer.  Now, unfortunately we have to run the extra step of actually knowing our customer’s customer compliance with laws.

– Allan Ramlall

The Virtual Currency Compliance Conference (“VC3”) by the NMTA

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I am participating in the Virtual Currency Compliance Conference (“VC3”) being held in New York on Wednesday the 14th. The conference is being hosted by the NMTA and will focus on the issue of compliance for virtual currency operators. If you or your company have any interest in virtual currency, then you don’t want to miss VC3. Below is a great article about the conference provided by PRWeb.

– Brian Nelson

Former FinCEN Director Freis to Address the Virtual Currencies Community

On Wednesday, August 14th, at the New York City Bar Association, former Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) Director James H. Freis, Jr. will address the first Virtual Currencies Compliance Conference (“VC3”), proudly hosted by the National Money Transmitters Association (http://www.nmta.us)!

Few can speak as authentically as Mr. Freis on the federal approach to regulation of new money transfer technologies. It was during his tenure that FinCEN first issued rules on how the BSA would treat prepaid access (or stored value) products, including mobile and internet money transfer.

Recent guidance from FinCEN further clarified that virtual currency Exchangers and Administrators were also to be considered money services businesses (“MSBs”) under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). A short time later, Cease and Desist Orders were sent to many Bitcoin operators by the State of California, due to their lack of state licenses.

Some virtual currency entrepreneurs, well aware of their anti-money laundering (“AML”) and state licensing obligations, integrated regulatory compliance into their business plans from the start. Some, however, may not have planned on the expense of compliance. They will now have to implement AML programs, get state-licensed and register with FinCEN, or risk facing criminal charges.

Industry members who come to VC3 will be enlightened by Mr. Freis and seven other compliance experts in interactive sessions, and by a panel of their industry peers at the end of the conference day.

There will be ample time to meet and chat with the experts and each other during a continental breakfast, buffet lunch and two coffee breaks. The day will finish with a networking cocktail mixer from 5:15 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.!

From 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., VC3 attendees who want to help shape and protect the future of their industry are welcome to attend a discussion of lobbying and self-regulatory strategies.

This meeting will be chaired by Ms. Constance Choi, General Counsel of Payward, Inc., one of the more than seventeen companies that have formed the Digital Asset Transfer Authority (DATA), a new self-regulatory effort that is making rapid progress and has garnered broad support from a large number of important industry players.

Do not miss this intensive learning and networking experience, register now. Early Bird pricing has been extended to August 14, 2013. Please call David Landsman at (917) 921-9529 to see if you qualify for affinity discounts.

The Gaping Void Between Traditional MSBs and Virtual Currency Operators

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There is a gaping void between traditional money transmitters and the virtual currency world! In order for virtual currency exchangers and administrators to comply with FinCEN and state regulations RIGHT NOW, they must build working partnerships with traditional money transmitters. Believe me, there is no other way for a virtual currency operator to get licensed and bonded nationally in any reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately, the process usually takes over a year. So…why aren’t more partnerships being developed where a virtual currency operator hooks up with a nationally licensed money transmitter as an agent?

What I’ve found is many money transmitters are interested in developing relationships with virtual currency operators, but they don’t know enough about the industry to jump in just yet. On the other hand, virtual currency operators know they need to find a partner, but don’t have the connections or the relationships with traditional money transmitters to make it happen.

I have been working with a number of organizations in preparing a “match-making” event where traditional money transmitters and virtual currency operators can meet face-to-face to discuss possible partnerships. This would give both sides an opportunity to learn from each other while building valuable relationships. Our hope is that by bringing both sides together, we will see more partnerships being built and thus the foundation of the virtual currency industry being strengthened.

Unfortunately, this type of event is not being valued by conference directors. I’ve contacted multiple conference directors who either don’t understand why this type of “match-making” is important or just don’t care to add additional value to a conference schedule that is already set.

So…that begs the question; would a “match-making” event be valuable to you, either as a traditional money transmitter or a virtual currency operator?

Authored by Brian Nelson

Not a Big Deal to Follow the Money Transmission Rules

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Allan-Ramlall-NMTAI would like to make some observations after reading the article ‘Virtual Currencies Draw State Scrutiny’ by Robin Sidel and Andrew Johnson in the Wall Street Journal.  The newly virtual currency exchanges must have developed a business plan specifying in detail the type of financial service which they planned to provide.  In addition, as in many cases these firms could have used attorneys to legally incorporate their businesses.   Whether it should have been the relevant attorneys, their bank officer who opened their bank accounts or the owners – it appears that the money transfer experts were not consulted.

Those of us in Money Transfer Compliance would have easily recognized that a money transfer license would have been necessary for the Bitcoin type of business module.  And even if the activity was in a ‘grey area’ – a simple call to the U.S regulators would have solved the issue.  In any case, one cannot go back in time but must deal with current reality – which is a Money Transfer license is required for a given relevant state in the U.S.A.   Yes – it is a bit cumbersome to obtain a license state by state since we do not have in place one National Money Transfer license covering the entire United States.

However, to attain a state Money Transfer License is relatively painless if you consult with the Money Transfer experts.  We can apply for one or multiple state licenses at a given time for a reasonable price and not a huge fortune.  And you do not need an attorney to execute this task.  Leave it to the experts who have the experience in this field.

And please – as long as the virtual currency exchanges have an objective of only conducting legitimate business then they should welcome the anti-money laundering requirements which come along with a state Money Transfer License.  Again the money transfer regulatory experts can assist you to set up policies, procedures and controls to mitigate the infiltration of the criminal elements in your company operations.

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Yes – you do need surety bonds for the Money Transfer licenses in the various states.  But do not be afraid of the numbers – such as having to obtain a surety bond of $300,000 to $2 million.  Again the money transfer compliance experts can have the surety bond specialists quote you the premiums which you will need to pay – and I assure you that if your company has a good business, those premiums can be quite satisfactory.

So please my friends – do not be afraid.  Be brave – especially if you have confidence in your product and service and wish to conduct only legitimate business.   The government regulators will work with you as long as you follow the rules.

-Allan Ramlall