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Know your ultimate beneficial owner or face the consequences

Sylwia Wolos
Sylwia Wolos
Head of Proposition, Enhanced Due Diligence, Refinitiv

The fight against money laundering and corruption has made financial transparency a global priority, meaning it is critical that we know who we are doing business with.

Entering into a contract or business relationship with a company without full knowledge of beneficial ownership, past or present, introduces significant risk to an organization. Even an unwitting contravention of anti-money laundering, anti-corruption and bribery legislation can have extreme consequences through regulatory censure, financial penalties, reputational damage.

The G20’s commitment to increase corporate transparency and crack down on anonymous and secretive shell companies has been one such step in the fight against money laundering. And proposed changes to EU and US anti-money laundering (AML) and customer due diligence legislation will soon affect the way in which organizations assess business risk.

These changes include tightening up the complex issue of ultimate beneficial ownership (UBO).

What does the term ‘beneficial ownership’ mean for AML purposes?

There is no universal and finite definition of ‘beneficial owner’. Various bodies, governments and institutions differ in their interpretation, and it also depends on the legal person’s form.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which sets global AML requirements, defines a beneficial owner as “the natural person(s) who ultimately owns or controls a customer and/or the natural person on whose behalf a transaction is being conducted. It also includes those persons who exercise ultimate effective control over a legal person or arrangement”.

With regards to the owning threshold, FATF does not provide a clear numerical answer and only states 25 percent as an example. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) stated that it would treat an entity as being subject to US sanctions if it is owned 50 percent or more in aggregate by designated persons.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), on the other hand, requires the institution to follow a 10 percent ownership rule.

What regulations are being put in in place or expanded in order to identify UBOs?

The requirement for financial institutions to know their clients is not new. But amid growing demand for increased transparency, the need for UBO identification has gained momentum in the last few years.

The issue was among the key topics at the G8 Summit in 2013 and the G20 Summit in 2014, following which the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) signed an agreement to ensure countries honor their commitments.

With governments now demanding increased business transparency, the UK introduced the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, which, among other changes, led to the creation of the PSC or ‘persons with significant control’ register.

Regulators worldwide are following suit with a number of codifications and clarifications:

Identifying the Ultimate Beneficial Owner (UBO): The challenge of finding the needle in the haystack
Identifying the Ultimate Beneficial Owner (UBO): The challenge of finding the needle in the haystack

What should organizations have in place to identify UBO?

Organizations need to have a robust, risk-based and auditable process which can identify who exercises ultimate effective control over legal persons. If the information is collected from the customer, organizations need to take reasonable steps to verify the information with public and reputable sources.

It is not sufficient to just find out who the beneficiaries are, but to understand what compliance risk, if any, they present to the organization. This can be achieved through appropriate level of due diligence checks on all beneficiaries. Following the identification and analysis of risk, each organization must have a strong, documented policy of a risk-based approval process and regular monitoring of the ownership relationships.

How can we help banks and institutions to identify beneficial ownership?

We provide a range of services to help different types of businesses, including through managed services and bespoke reporting.

  1. World-Check: Finds hidden UBO risk in business relationships and extends partner networks by screening customers against comprehensive KYC risk intelligence data.
  2. Enhanced Due Diligence: Offers a structured approach to identification and checking the UBOs of important third parties to ensure up-to-date and auditable compliance. UBOs are screened against World-Check to uncover risk associated with global sanctions, watch and enforcement lists, and to check for political exposure (PEPs) and crime related to money laundering, bribery, corruption and fraud.
  3. KYC as a Service: The KYC managed service for commercial firms is an end-to-end client identity, verification, screening and monitoring service for accelerated client on-boarding, remediation and refresh of existing portfolios. KYC as a Service utilizes Enhanced Due Diligence reports as a key component of the service, to provide the beneficial owner of public and private entities.
  4. Client On-Boarding: Provides compliant and automated on-boarding of new clients and ongoing refresh cycles. Within the on-boarding workflow it offers an infrastructure for financial institutions to proactively collect, visualize and manage the ownership data and hierarchy.

Read the Expert Talk: Identifying the UBO: The challenge of finding the needle in the haystack