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October 4, 2010
Has existing regulation of money services businesses kept pace with their enhanced financial services options?
Most businesses that meet the definition of money services business (MSB) offer financial services such as wire transfers, currency exchange, check cashing, traveler's checks, money orders, or stored-value cards. In the past, MSBs mostly served consumers without an established banking relationship—that is, the unbanked. Today, consumers with established banking relationships may also use these services on occasion because the MSBs sometimes offer cheaper services, such as wire transfers, than banks do.
Well-established MSBs such as Western Union and MoneyGram have provided the traditional services—wire transfers, currency exchange, check cashing, and so on—for years. Over the past few years, MSBs have rapidly grown and expanded their financial services offerings with options such as Internet-directed services for person-to-person (P2P) and person-to-business (P2B) payments, stored-value products, and, most recently, mobile money transfer service, which permits users to send funds cross-border and domestically using their mobile phone.
But are these expanded financial services within the coverage of the existing regulatory framework for MSBs? Are there new money laundering risks with the introduction of new financial services options not previously anticipated by the existing regulatory framework?
Conforming MSB regulation to mirror MSBs enhanced services
Although states have regulated check cashers and money transmitters for years, regulation of these nonbank financial institutions has not been uniform. The Uniform Money Services Act (UMSA) was adopted in an effort to provide a framework to deal with money laundering issues unique to nondepository providers of financial services. UMSA applies to businesses that provide money services and requires that MSBs be licensed, maintain extensive records of their transactions, and submit to audits. Although some MSBs may only offer one or more of the services listed above, all MSBs are subject to the provisions of UMSA because of the interrelated group of services they offer and because they are not regulated in the same manner as depositary institutions.
UMSA expanded existing MSB regulatory coverage to include what was considered at the time a new type of payment service: Internet-based service. It was believed that this new type of financial service posed the same concerns as did traditional financial services, such as wire transfers and check cashing, for example.
A patchwork of regulation
MSB compliance is a complex patchwork of regulations that involve federal restrictions on money laundering as well as state consumer protection mandates. MSBs are required to follow Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-money Laundering (BSA/AML) regulations that require them to file "Currency Transaction Reports," implement AML programs, and file "Suspicious Activity Reports." The Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has delegated authority to the IRS to examine MSBs for compliance with BSA requirements. State agencies may evaluate MSBs for compliance with BSA, though they may not directly enforce the BSA. Generally, State agencies are charged with enforcing their own MSB state statutes and regulations, which sometimes may impose requirements that overlap with the BSA.
Navigating through MSB regulations
In 2009, FinCEN conducted outreach meetings with some of the largest MSBs in an effort to better understand how MSBs navigate through these numerous regulations. The meetings resulted in the production of a report that stated that as MSBs navigate through these regulations, they place significant emphasis on agent oversight and compliance, value their reputation and consumer trust as the core objective of their business models, and feel that being in compliance with BSA regulations is consistent with their business model. The results of this report do not certify that the participating MSBs were in compliance with MSB regulations.
In the last year, legislation was proposed that would centralize MSB anti-money laundering compliance with the Treasury and authorize that office to recognize a self-regulatory organization similar to the private nonprofit Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) that regulates broker dealers. The goal of the bill is to bring about uniform registration and supervision of MSBs without preempting state laws.
MSBs play a vital role in domestic and foreign economies, particularly by providing the needed financial services that facilitate the transmission of money to foreign countries. Establishing uniform legislation may strengthen the continued work of combating money laundering and help prevent the use of MSBs as channels for money laundering or other illicit activities.
By Ana Cavazos-Wright, senior payments risk analyst in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
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