Joann Alicea: The Fight Against Human Trafficking/Smuggling Continues

Joann Alicea

ACAMS Today caught up with Joann Alicea, CFCI, senior compliance officer at JPMorgan Chase, to discuss the horrific offenses of human trafficking (HT) and human smuggling (HS), and how the public and private sectors can work together to effect positive change and help shape the future of suspicious activity reporting.

Alicea has over 10 years of regulatory compliance fraud/anti-money laundering and risk experience in monitoring bank accounts, prepaid cards, and merchant and cardholder credit card transactions. She has received commendations for excellent investigative work from the U.S. Secret Service and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) for assisting in domestic and international fraud/money laundering cases.

In addition, Alicea has written two ACAMS Today articles on HT and she is a public speaker on fighting the crime of HT at both the Visa and MasterCard payment level and on victim money laundering scams. For the past six years, Alicea has held a very public lobbying campaign to encourage the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to consider an update to the SAR form to include a checkbox for HT/HS.

ACAMS Today: Could you give our readers a brief glimpse into your background?

Joann Alicea: I became a financial crimes investigator shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Prior to this, I was a credit card fraud analyst. The 9/11 attacks highlighted the importance of information sharing between financial institutions and law enforcement. Very quickly my role within the financial institution transformed from being fraud specific to being more holistically focused on the identification and reporting of financial crimes and terrorist financing. The Office of Foreign Assets Control screening and SAR filing responsibilities were now part of my daily job responsibilities—before 9/11 neither had been my responsibility.

AT: When did your passion for the prevention of HT begin?

JA: My interest started while performing a routine investigation in 2010. I became aware of the use of prepaid cards on sites like Craigslist and Backpage.com for all sorts of criminal offenses, including, but not limited to, prostitution and HT. The fact that financial transactions for prostitution and HT were being transacted through banking products fascinated me. I began to watch news documentaries on HT such as CNN’s Selling the Girl Next Door. I sought out and watched HT education movies. In addition, I attended anti-HT conferences around the country. It was at these conferences where I met actual survivors of HT, which fueled my passion on the subject. I began to read extensively on the topic. ACAMS Today was a fantastic source of information in 2010 and continues to be a powerful source of up-to-date, reliable information on all sorts of trafficking, including forced labor, sex trafficking and indentured servitude.

AT: You worked extensively to gather a lot of knowledge on this horrific crime. What was your next step and how did you plan to put your knowledge to use?

JA: Well, my first step was getting recognized in the industry. I received an invitation from a law enforcement HT detective to join a LinkedIn Human Trafficking Investigators Group. It was my exposure to this group that led me to learn how the addition of a checkbox on the SAR form might prove beneficial to both SAR reporters and law enforcement. In addition, in 2011 I authored an article in ACAMS Today titled “$5.00 to Ruin the Life of Children and Women: Internet Ad Sites Used to Launder Money in Promoting Prostitution/Human Trafficking.” I worked tirelessly to find suitable outlets to share the knowledge I had gathered about HT. It was during the writing of my 2011 ACAMS Today article that I decided that I not only wanted to educate the public about HT, but I wanted to effect real change.

AT: Is this when you started the campaign for the checkbox on the SAR form for HT/HS?

JA: Absolutely. At this point in my career, I had a firm understanding of the power of the SAR in helping law enforcement to fight financial crimes, including HT and HS. Remember, it wasn’t until FinCEN released Guidance A0081 in 2014 that specific verbiage was required in the SAR narrative, so that accurate tracking of HT and HS reports could occur. If the specific verbiage isn’t added, accurate tracking of reported cases becomes near impossible. The “simple” addition of a checkbox for HT/HS will support more accurate reporting. In addition, I think it sends a clear message that the U.S. law enforcement community is committed to investigating and prosecuting HT/HS with the same intensity it does fraud, money laundering and terrorist financing. The influence of the SAR checkbox for HT/HS is solid affirmation throughout the financial services industry that we must train compliance investigators and branch associates to understand the red flag indicators for HT/HS.

AT: Was the campaign to have a checkbox added to the SAR for HT/HS an easy undertaking?

JA: Initially I thought it would be easy. I was quickly proven wrong. I came to understand that updating the SAR to include a checkbox for HT/HS would be a long battle and not a short scuffle. I presented at industry conferences and a human rights’ Anti-HT Conference to raise awareness on updating the SAR for an HT checkbox. A major break in the campaign came when I received an opportunity to write for the 23rd Edition of the SAR Activity Review Trends, Tips and Issues. The publication of the article was energizing because it cemented that notion that the financial services industry could drive public policy change. The article raised an enormous amount of industry awareness to my campaign.

AT: What would you describe as the turning point in the campaign for the SAR checkbox for HT/HS?

JA: At an Anti-HT event, I had a few minutes to speak with Congressman Ted Poe (TX) about my efforts to fight HT—specifically with the update to the SAR. Thankfully, Congressman Poe understood my message and encouraged me to continue my efforts. His office put me in touch with his senior legislative representative in Washington, D.C. It took about two years for Congressman Poe to agree to author a letter to FinCEN requesting the SAR to be updated to add a checkbox for HT/HS. In 2015, Congressman Poe’s office sent a letter signed by Congressman Poe and Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (NY) to FinCEN requesting that the SAR be updated for HT. An excerpt of the letter states:

“The current suspicious activity categories, which include fraud, money laundering, and terrorist activity, are sensible and important, but we write today to request that the SAR also include human trafficking. As the agency’s September 2014 guidance notes, financial institutions have a critical role to play in identifying and reporting transactions that may be related to human trafficking and human smuggling. Given the financial aspect of this crime, it is logical and critical to add this category. The addition will help to identify human traffickers and save victims as well as aid in the collection of much needed statistics of this widespread crime.”

I thought that when Congressman Poe’s letter went to FinCEN, the update would soon follow. The Congressman’s letter resulted in no immediate response from FinCEN. It was only after my continued requests for the Congressman’s office to follow up with FinCEN that FinCEN provided various reasons why the SAR form would not be updated.

I understand the value of accurate reporting of the horrific crimes of HT and HS; thus, I was not deterred by this setback.

While I was working with Congressman Poe’s office, I was simultaneously emailing the President through Whitehouse.gov. In June 2015, a deputy at FinCEN sent an email thanking me, on behalf of the White House, for my work in fighting HT. He invited me to join a conference call with two FinCEN deputies and their subject-matter expert on HT. For 45 minutes we discussed updating the SAR to include the checkbox for HT/HS. They explained the barriers—high cost for the change and no direct request from law enforcement for the update. At the end of the call, both sides had a better understanding of the other side. The discussion did not have the result I was hoping for; however, the cause had gained a lot of notice in the highest reaches of our government. This was the turning point in the campaign—the cause was gaining recognition and being taken seriously.

AT: So, where do you turn when FinCEN declines your request for the checkbox? It seems as if FinCEN’s denial would be a deal-breaker.

JA: I was not discouraged. I kept my campaign on track. I met Congressman Trey Gowdy (SC) and talked to him about updating the SAR for HT. In addition, I continued to reach out to Whitehouse.gov. I took every opportunity presented to speak with government officials about updating the SAR form. I even presented the idea to former RNC Chairman Reince Priebus during the Republican National Presidential debate.

I continued the campaign in social media with industry colleagues and the anti-HT community. I also started a Twitter campaign to members of Congress, President Trump and staff. Honestly, I have been laser-focused for the past six years on my mission for the SAR to include a checkbox for HT/HS. No stone was left unturned.

AT: Has your campaign been successful?

JA: The final result is not yet in; however, I am happy to report that on February 2, 2017, FinCEN released proposed revisions to the SAR form,2 which does include the addition of a checkbox for HT/HS.

AT: Thank you for sharing your story. Any closing thoughts?

JA: I am looking forward to the day the “new” SAR form with the HT/HS checkbox is finalized and released. However, the release of the revised SAR form is not the end game. Our work as financial crime investigators in fighting HT continues. We must work together with our partners in law enforcement to raise awareness of HT and HS with the goal to eradicate this horrific crime and rescue the victims. The revised form is not the end of the campaign. It is merely the beginning of a new one.

Interviewed by: Amy Wotapka, CAMS, BSA officer, First American Bank, Vernon Hills, IL, USA, awotapka@firstambank.com

  1. “Guidance on Recognizing Activity that May Be Associated with Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking—Financial Red Flags,” FinCEN, September 11, 2014, https://www.fincen.gov/resources/advisories/fincen-advisory-fin-2014-a008
  2. Federal Register, February 2, 2017, https://www.fincen.gov/sites/default/files/federal_register_notices/2017-02-08/BSAR_2017-02235.pdf

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