Banks hit with $549 million in fines for use of Signal, WhatsApp to evade regulators’ reach

  • U.S. regulators on Tuesday announced a combined $549 million in penalties against Wall Street firms that failed to maintain electronic records of employee communications.
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission announced charges against 11 firms for “widespread and longstanding failures” to maintain records, including by allowing employees to use unsupervised side channels such as messaging apps WhatsApp and Signal, the regulator said.
  • Wells Fargo was the biggest U.S. bank cited Tuesday in the sweeping actions.

U.S. regulators on Tuesday announced a combined $549 million in penalties against Wells Fargo and a raft of smaller or non-U.S. firms that failed to maintain electronic records of employee communications.

The Securities and Exchange Commission disclosed charges and $289 million in fines against 11 firms for “widespread and longstanding failures” in record-keeping, while the Commodity Futures Trading Commission also said it fined four banks a total of $260 million for failing to maintain records required by the agency.

It was regulators’ latest effort to stamp out the pervasive use of secure messaging apps like Signal, Meta‘s WhatsApp or Apple‘s iMessage by Wall Street employees and managers. Starting in late 2021, the watchdogs secured settlements with bigger players including JPMorgan ChaseGoldman SachsMorgan Stanley and Citigroup. Fines related to the issue total more than $2 billion, according to the SEC and CFTC.

“Today’s actions stem from our continuing sweep to ensure that regulated entities, including broker-dealers and investment advisers, comply with their recordkeeping requirements, which are essential for us to monitor and enforce compliance with the federal securities laws,” Sanjay Wadhwa, deputy director of enforcement at the SEC, said in the release.

The firms admitted that from at least 2019, employees used side channels like WhatsApp to discuss company business, failing to preserve records “in violation of federal securities laws,” the SEC said Tuesday.

Wells Fargo biggest offender

Wells Fargo, the fourth-biggest U.S. bank by assets and a relatively small player on Wall Street, racked up the most fines on Tuesday, with $200 million in penalties.

“We are pleased to resolve this matter,” said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Laurie Kight.

French banks BNP Paribas and Societe Generale were fined $110 million each, while the Bank of Montreal was fined $60 million. The SEC also fined Japanese firms Mizuho Securities and SMBC Nikko Securities and boutique U.S. investment banks including Houlihan Lokey, Moelis and Wedbush Securities.

Bank of Montreal has “made significant enhancements to our compliance procedures in recent years” and is pleased to have the matter behind it, said spokesman Jeff Roman.

The other banks penalized Tuesday declined to comment.

Apart from the fines, banks were ordered to “cease and desist” from future violations and hire consultants to review bank policies, the SEC said.

On Wall Street, company records of emails and other communications via official channels are often automatically generated to adhere to requirements that clients are treated fairly. But after some of the industry’s biggest scandals of the past decade hinged on incriminating messages preserved in chatrooms, workers often leaned on side channels to conduct business.

A widespread practice

Encrypted messages sent on third-party platforms like Signal make it impossible for banks to record and retain logs of interactions. At Wells Fargo and other banks, the practice was pervasive and happening at all levels; even the managers responsible for enforcing the rules were guilty of the practice, regulators said Tuesday.

An analysis of 13 Wells Fargo employees, for instance, found that all had violated the bank’s communications policies by using text messages to communicate with co-workers and market participants. They used the side channels to communicate with more than 100 other employees, including senior supervisors, over thousands of messages, according to the CFTC complaint.

“Employees’ use of unapproved communication methods was not hidden within the firm,” the CFTC said. “To the contrary, certain supervisors—the very people responsible for supervising employees to prevent this misconduct—routinely communicated using unapproved methods on their personal devices.”

Image by: Reuters

Shopping Cart

Media Kit

    Data Protection

    Personal Data (“Data”) submitted for Media Kit (“Media Kit”), and/or collected in the form of first name, last name, email address and other contact details may be used for the purposes of inviting you to future events and for reaching out to you with content which may be of interest to you. For these purposes, The Digital Banker will share the Data with our associate companies (including event and content sponsors) to promote their products and services. You will also be automatically subscribed as a user on www.thedigitalbanker.com. If you would like to opt-out, email us at [email protected].

    By clicking Submit, you acknowledge that you consent/ have sufficient informed consent to the collection, use and disclosure of Data as set out above.

    The Digital Banker Summit

    Moving on from FTX: is 2023 the year of CBDCs?

    Indonesia, Jakarta

    Thailand, Bangkok

    Philippines, Manila

    Contact Us

      Data Protection

      The information you provide will be held on our database and may be used to keep you informed of our and our associate companies’ products and for selected third party mailings. Please tick the box if you would prefer not to be contacted for these purposes:

      Request Nomination Pack

        Data Protection

        The information you provide will be held on our database and may be used to keep you informed of our and our associate companies’ products and for selected third party mailings. Please tick the box if you would prefer not to be contacted for these purposes:

        Registration Form

          Data Protection

          The information you provide will be held on our database and may be used to keep you informed of our and our associate companies’ products and for selected third party mailings. Please tick the box if you would prefer not to be contacted for these purposes:

          Registration Form

            Data Protection

            The information you provide will be held on our database and may be used to keep you informed of our and our associate companies’ products and for selected third party mailings. Please tick the box if you would prefer not to be contacted for these purposes:

            Registration Form

              Data Protection

              The information you provide will be held on our database and may be used to keep you informed of our and our associate companies’ products and for selected third party mailings. Please tick the box if you would prefer not to be contacted for these purposes:

              Registration Form

                Data Protection

                The information you provide will be held on our database and may be used to keep you informed of our and our associate companies’ products and for selected third party mailings. Please tick the box if you would prefer not to be contacted for these purposes:

                Registration Form

                  Data Protection

                  The information you provide will be held on our database and may be used to keep you informed of our and our associate companies’ products and for selected third party mailings. Please tick the box if you would prefer not to be contacted for these purposes:

                  The world’s preeminent Private Banks and Wealth Managers are demonstrating a committed drive in innovation, advisory, new products and services to meet the sophisticated needs of their clients.

                  COVID-19
                  Amid economic activity revival on the back of the Covid-19 vaccine program, organisations moving from business continuity plans to stable working environments, together with the slightest improvement in unemployment numbers, forced the world to adjust to new realities. Coming to terms with the “new normal”, global investors are now on the look-out for attractive and stable investment opportunities.

                  Needs of Private Wealth customers and families worldwide have drastically changed due to the pandemic and banks have had to accelerate efforts to deploy a multi-channel service strategy and safeguard clients’ businesses and wealth against negative impacts of economic uncertainly.

                  The Global Private Banking Innovation Awards will recognise the world’s best private banks, wealth managers and asset managers that are championing innovation across advisory, service, products, customer experience and more.

                  Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. 

                  Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

                  Request Nomination Pack

                  Error: Contact form not found.