Avoid the economic sanctions crossfire with automated screening

Avoid the economic sanctions crossfire with automated screening

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Economic sanctions can be powerful tools to combat crime and rogue actors. They also imply that financial institutions need to constantly monitor their customer base and the transactions they make. Doing so is time-consuming and expensive, while the many different lists that must be consulted makes the task truly onerous.


Yet not screening customers and transactions can lead to sanctions violations with large penalties. Automated sanction screening tools is really the only way forward. In this article we discuss how sanctions work, why sanctions matter and what your financial institution can do to stay on the right side of the law.

Sanctions defined

For a variety of reasons a government, a group of countries or local and international agencies may decide to establish a financial ban or barrier against an individual or indeed entire countries. These barriers, also known as sanctions, can be seen to be a modern and non-violent form of warfare: blocking the ability of individuals, companies or countries to transact financially can have severe implications on the affected parties.

Sanctions can make it impossible to exchange money and to buy goods and services. In turn, the affected parties may change their actions, views or opinions in order to get the blocks and bans lifted. Sanctions do not always work and how effective they are really depends on the repercussions and whether the affected parties are amiable to change.

How sanctions impact financial institutions

For sanctions to be effective there must be a mechanism for enforcement. Governments and agencies may not be able to enforce rules in foreign jurisdictions, but they can create regulations around sanctions that affect the ability of domestic firms to do business with persons and organizations that are sanctioned.

As an example, the US cannot enforce sanctions in Russia against persons who work for Russian security services. But the US government can force US financial institutions and institutions working in partner countries around the world to exclude sanctioned individuals and companies from the financial system.

The penalties for violating sanctions measures

Financial institutions stand to pay stiff penalties and suffer from severe repercussions if they do not comply with sanction legislation. For example, Deutsche Bank was fined a collective $258m in 2015 by two US Federal agencies because the bank failed to put in place the required policies and procedures that would have prevented transactions with financial institutions in Iran, Libya, Syria, Burma and Sudan.

The stiff penalties were imposed on Deutsche Bank because its non-compliance meant that financial institutions in these countries could evade sanctions. There are countless examples of stiff fines and it is with reason that financial institutions fear the implications of getting caught in a sanctions net.

Who are PEPs?

It is also worth knowing who politically exposed persons or PEPs are. While not necessarily directly targeted by sanctions, PEPs are individuals with close relations to parties that are targeted. Many financial institutions believe that dealing with PEPs is risky as there is a chance that sanctions may be inadvertently violated, or that the PEP may behave in a way that violates sanctions without the financial institutions’ safeguards. At the very least, PEPs should be monitored throughout day to day operations.

Avoiding the sanctions trap

Checks and balances must be put into place that alerts compliance staff whenever a sanctioned party or PEP tries to enroll as a customer. These checks also need to apply to existing, safe customers that try to transact with parties that are sanctioned.

The next step involves preventing circumvention. Merely matching against a list is not enough: institutions need to adopt complex strategies to avoid letting through transactions that are disguised. This includes so-called “stripping” efforts where material information about a financial transaction is hidden or changed in order to avoid sanctions measures.

Clearly there’s a great deal of work involved in meeting obligations around sanctions but what compounds the problem is the variety of different sanctions lists compiled by a range of agencies. The US Bank Secrecy Act and Patriot Act are just two US examples, while financial institutions also need to contend with the EU’s Fourth Money Laundering Directive even if they are not EU-based. It is an almost inhuman task.

Automated sanction screening is the only realistic option

Automated systems, of course, are less encumbered by capacity issues. A sanction screening service can automatically match all transactions against a database of PEPs and sanctioned parties and flag any actions that exceed risk thresholds. Quality systems will provide further capabilities, including the ability to detect circumvention by, for example, intelligently matching names and addresses.

While humans are often inconsistent in their day to day work, an automated system can offer consistent and traceable analysis. This reduces the opportunity for internal rogue actors to bypass an institution’s controls and minimize the chance of human error both in terms of missed red flags and false positives.

In essence, financial institutions can implement an automated system that offers sophisticated sanction screening, covering all jurisdictions and authorities. Automated systems can do so at a lower cost and at a higher level of accuracy, greatly reducing the chances that your institution would fall foul of sanctions and be subject to extremely costly fines.

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