Asia Focus – Picking up Where Sanctions Screening Leaves Off: Why You Need to Screen for PEPs and REPs

Arthit Saeli, the owner of a commercial real estate company in Thailand, entered a local bank to open a new account. No red flags arose during the onboarding process. The account manager opened the account, shook Saeli’s hand and thanked him for choosing their institution.

Little did the bank realize that they just provided a conduit for Saeli’s payoffs as a middleman in a human trafficking ring.

Serious about sanctions
Regulated entities around the world have learned to take sanctions seriously. In 2019 alone, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) levied nearly U.S. $1.3 billion in penalties on banks and other organizations for anti-money laundering (AML) and sanctions violations.

Southeast Asian institutions have had their own share of high-profile cases over the last several years, bringing fines and more intense scrutiny from regulators. In response, institutions in the region have stepped up their AML and sanctions compliance processes and controls.

Banks typically screen customers against readily available sanctions lists provided by the four heavyweights – OFAC, Her Majesty Treasury (HMT), European Union (EU) and United Nations (UN) – as required by the regulators of the jurisdictions in which they operate or as required by the financial institution’s correspondent banks. Some institutions supplement those lists with basic sanctions data from commercial software providers.

But is it enough?

Focusing exclusively on sanctions will meet anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) requirements and certainly mitigate risk, but it still leaves gaps that can expose your institution to money laundering, arms trafficking, drug-related crimes, human trafficking and other illicit activities.

PEPs, REPs and Enforcement Lists
Screening for politically exposed persons (PEPs) and reputationally exposed persons (REPs),
also called adverse media or negative news, offers the enhanced due diligence (EDD) needed to close these gaps.

Due to the financial crime compliance (FCC) technology stack in many countries in APAC, the risk of financial institutions encountering a local criminal or someone with adverse media that is not on any sanction list is greater than missing a sanctioned entity or individual. It is therefore prudent to also screen against local enforcement data, which includes criminals, blacklists and lists of debarred companies released by the local regulators, authorities and law enforcement bodies of a particular jurisdiction. To capture changing risk, screening should be conducted at onboarding and on a continual basis.

COVID-19 has only increased the need for PEP and adverse media screening. Already the global hotbed of sex trafficking and slavery, South Asia and many South East Asian countries expect these and other crimes to worsen as a result of the pandemic. Lockdowns have pushed illicit activities further in the shadows, making it increasingly difficult for vulnerable parties to seek help. At the same time, more people are facing financial hardships that could force them into the arms of abusers out of desperation.

Sanctions screening alone isn’t likely to catch all the perpetrators of human trafficking and other humanitarian or financial crimes. A deeper, more complete view of the risk is needed – one that looks at connections and alternative sources of information, as well as provides a localized view of organizations and customers that do business with the bank. That is exactly what screening for PEP, adverse media and enforcement data bring to bear.

Had Saeli’s Thai bank screened him against a list of PEPs, REPs, or enforcements, it would have learned of his close ties with a senior-ranking government official indicted for conspiracy. That red flag should have been enough to deny his request for an account or designate it as high risk and subject to greater ongoing scrutiny.

Perceived hurdles
In spite of the more complete picture of risk gained from screening against lists of PEPs, REPs and local law enforcement data, financial institutions in Southeast Asia have been slow to embrace this level of due diligence for several reasons:

  • Not mandated. While sanctions screening is required, there is no similar requirement for know your customer (KYC), customer due diligence (CDD) and EDD. There is only best practices guidance that comes from various organizations and agencies, such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Central Banks, and the Wolfsberg Group. The guidance highlights the need for institutions to follow a risk-based approach to screening and to conduct KYC, adverse media and similar checks; but it does not go so far as to mandate that these checks be done.
  • Negligible monetary fines. Unlike sanctions screening, failure to screen for PEPs, REPs and law enforcement data doesn’t result in large fines, so institutions may feel less inclined to do so. However, there is still a cost as institutions face the risk of reputational damage that could compromise its financial integrity.
  • Surge in false positives, Adverse media is made up of disparate information scattered across thousands of articles, publications, and websites. Without the proper screening systems in place, adding PEP, REP and law enforcement data screening to a bank’s compliance process can increase false positives. Investigating each false positive alert is time consuming, which can delay onboarding and add to compliance costs.
  • Not “plug and play.” There is no universal agreement as to what a PEP or REP includes. As such, there is no single authoritative list of these high-risk entities, no standardized format for filtering, no published schedule for updates, and no one base language. The same applies to local enforcement data, which comes in through various lists published by local regulators and law enforcement agencies.
  • Cost concerns. Many compliance teams are already working at full capacity. With budgets tight, increasing compliance staff to handle an uptick in false positives as a result of additional screening may not be a viable option.

Finding the right balance
The benefits of shoring up EDD are indisputable, but the reality of balancing cost and risk is a dilemma that institutions face every day. By equipping compliance teams with data and screening technology that is efficient and effective, banks will be better positioned to overcome hurdles and make enhanced due diligence a regular part of their compliance program.

How Accuity can help
With our industry-leading watch lists and advanced filtering solutions, you can improve detection, minimize false positives, prioritize risk, streamline investigations, and boost your operational efficiency.

Let us help you gain a deeper understanding of your customer accounts to better weigh the value of the business against potential risk.

Download our latest whitepaper ‘Avoiding the KYC Blind Spots’
Contact us for more information.