The threat of sanctions evasion creates challenges similar to those in AML. But AI can help.

By Elizabeth Callan

The landscape of international sanctions is evolving. Lists are growing along with the introduction of unprecedented efforts, such as the oil price cap.

Financial institutions (FIs) and firms face mounting compliance challenges. Comprehensive sanctions compliance, particularly with sectoral sanctions and the 50 percent rule, can be a complicated task and must extend beyond list-based screening to include the detection of sophisticated evasion techniques that mask connections several degrees removed from the named targets.

Sneaky trade, illegal transactions

Sanctions have significant economic impacts, evidenced by Russia’s adaptation to Western sanctions through increased Yuan-based transactions and indirect trade routes.

In the wake of its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow have made it increasingly difficult for Russia to trade in Western goods and currencies. The sanctions, including the price caps on oil and petroleum products, have undercut Russia’s economy since they were imposed in early 2022. But Russia has, to an extent, evaded them or at least blunted their force.

Meanwhile, Russia is also evading sanctions by importing products through middleman countries or exporting its oil on tankers that sail without Western insurance.

It’s such scenarios that prompted former Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes Elizabeth Rosenberg, speaking recently at the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists Assembly Conference, to call on banks and companies to adopt “policies and systems to monitor, screen, and analyze trade and customs data to understand the underlying controlled goods their clients trade and correspondents facilitate.”

A steep cost

FIs and other firms are the frontline players in this effort, essential to ensuring that sanctions have their intended effect.

But at the compliance level, the siloing of information within FIs can hinder prevention efforts. As Rosenberg explained, since many red flags of evasion mirror common money laundering red flags, sanctions compliance teams must break down silos between AML and sanctions compliance efforts to realize the value of information and insights for both.

That means that financial institutions need their anti-money laundering and sanctions compliance programs to collaborate and share resources. With respect to detecting sanctions evasion, both are concerned with monitoring some of the same kind of behaviors and actions that require sophisticated technology to sift out false positives as well as trained professionals who can make judgment calls.

Enterprises that don’t break down barriers between the two programs risked “unwittingly, or inadvertently, processing payments for controlled goods and involving designated entities,” said Rosenberg. That’s why it is so urgent for financial institutions and businesses in all sectors to do their due diligence when it comes to policing themselves – because a failure to do so can result in stiff penalties in the form of steep fines, as well as loss of business and reputational damage if caught violating sanctions. Violators, meanwhile, can also face criminal penalties, including imprisonment.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco described sanctions as the “new FCPA” and “recognized the critical need to enforce these sanctions with unprecedented intensity.” If that’s not enough to demonstrate regulators’ appetite for enforcement, OFAC in December was granted new authorities that allow it to place secondary sanctions on foreign financial institutions (FFI) found to have conducted or facilitated significant transactions involving Russia’s military-industrial base. This means OFAC can effectively eliminate a FFI’s access to the U.S. financial system based on sanctions violations.

AI can help

Despite increasing regulatory scrutiny and sanctions risk exposure, many financial institutions have maximized the effectiveness of legacy technologies while relying on inefficient manual processes that result in inaccurate results, according to PwC. Instead, the consultancy suggested that firms integrate cutting-edge automated solutions into their current technology infrastructure.

Generative AI enables better use of unstructured data by extracting context and insights that effectively automate due diligence around screening alerts to deliver sound recommendations regarding matches. This accelerates the review and decision process, enhances the accuracy of those decisions, and reduces false positives in a way that would be nearly impossible for human investigators.

Elizabeth Callan Headshot - Global Banking | FinanceQuerying through co-pilots or assistants, especially at an investigation level, also enables fast, automated information collection, synthesization, and insights to sanctions analysts. This proactive approach is crucial to avoid severe penalties, reputational damage, and potential criminal liabilities.

As regulatory scrutiny intensifies, adopting AI-driven compliance measures is essential for preventing sanctions violations. It’s important to address, though, that where there are benefits to using AI, there are also risks. It’s up to financial institutions to be aware of those risks and employ proper governance.

Elizabeth Callan is the AML & Sanctions Compliance and Risk Management SME at SymphonyAI Financial Services.