The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced settled charges against GWFS Equities Inc. (GWFS), a Colorado-based registered broker-dealer and affiliate of Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Company, for violating the federal securities laws governing the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs). GWFS provides services to employer-sponsored retirement plans.
According to the SEC’s order, from September 2015 through October 2018, GWFS was aware of increasing attempts by external bad actors to gain access to the retirement accounts of individual plan participants. The order further finds that GWFS was aware that the bad actors attempted or gained access by, among other things, using improperly obtained personal identifying information of the plan participants, and that the bad actors frequently were in possession of electronic login information such as user names, email addresses, and passwords.
Broker-dealers are required to file SARs for certain transactions suspected to involve fraudulent activity or a lack of an apparent business purpose. The guidance for preparing SARs from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) states that in order to be effective tools for law enforcement and fulfill their intended purpose, SAR narratives should include “the five essential elements of information – who? what? when? where? and why? – of the suspicious activity being reported.” The order finds that GWFS failed to file approximately 130 SARs, including in cases when it had detected external bad actors gaining, or attempting to gain, access to the retirement accounts of participants in the employer-sponsored retirement plans it serviced. Further, for nearly 300 SARs that GWFS did file, the order finds that GWFS did not include the “five essential elements” of information it knew and was required to report about the suspicious activity and suspicious actors, including cyber-related data such as URL addresses and IP addresses.
“Across the financial services industry, we have seen a large increase in attempts by outside bad actors to gain unauthorized access to client accounts,” said Kurt L. Gottschall, Director of the SEC’s Denver Regional Office. “By failing to file SARs and by omitting information it knew about the suspicious activity it did report, GWFS deprived law enforcement of critical information relating to the threat that outside bad actors pose to retirees’ accounts, particularly when the unauthorized account access has been cyber-enabled.”
The SEC’s order notes that significant cooperation by GWFS with the SEC’s investigation and subsequent remedial efforts were taken into account in the determination to accept the company’s settlement offer. The remedial efforts included adding dedicated anti-money laundering (AML) staff and systems, replacing key personnel, clarifying delegation of responsibility for filing SARs, and implementing new SAR-related policies, procedures, standards, and training.
The SEC’s order finds that GWFS violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act and Rule 17a-8 thereunder. Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, GWFS agreed to a settlement that imposes a $1.5 million penalty, a censure, and an order to cease and desist from future violations.
The SEC’s investigation was conducted by L. James Lyman with assistance from Daniel J. Goldberg, Damon Reed, David Cohen, and Andrae S. Eccles of the Enforcement Division’s Bank Secrecy Act Review Group. The case was supervised by Ian S. Karpel and Jason J. Burt. The SEC’s examination that led to the investigation was conducted by Denise S. Saxon, Phil Perrone, and Joni S. Marks with assistance from Lisa Byington.
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