What is Watchlist Screening?

Watchlist screening is a vital process and a part of the AML compliance program, which mandates financial institutions and other regulated entities to check if their customers and business partners appear in certain databases, including global watchlists, including crime and sanctions lists. Read more.

Watchlists consist of people and companies, which are screened against various databases in order to detect high-risk entities. These lists include the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions lists, Politically Exposed Person (PEP) lists, and others.

By screening these watchlists, organizations can enhance their understanding of users and effectively prevent, detect, and avoid fraudulent activities while carrying out proper Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) processes. 

The main concern for businesses is automating watchlist screening and efficiently checking large data volumes. Let’s jump right in and discuss the key steps to building a frictionless watchlist screening process.

How Does Watchlist Screening Work?

Watchlist screening involves comparing the identities of individuals and entities against various watchlists to identify potential risks or matches with sanctioned or high-risk individuals. These watchlist databases are created and constantly updated by governmental and law enforcement agencies. 

For example, a bank performing watchlist screening on a new customer discovers that the person’s name partially matches a known individual on the OFAC sanctions list. The bank’s system assigns a risk score to this match based on factors like location, transaction history, and other customer data.

If the risk score is high, the bank’s compliance team investigates further to determine if the individual is indeed the sanctioned person or if it’s a false positive. This ensures that innocent individuals with names similar to criminals are not mistakenly blocked or flagged, avoiding false positives.

Individuals placed on watchlists are often associated with money laundering and financial crime. These watchlist entries may also involve data on individuals involved in the cross-border smuggling of humans and cash, as well as people who engaged in the trade of weapons.

AML Wathclist Screening Workflow

What are Watchlists?

Watchlists are digital databases containing profiles of PEPs, people from high-risk countries, those who are found in adverse media, money laundering criminals, and other cybercriminals. Governments and transnational agencies collaborate to build global watchlists.

Here are some examples of AML crime and sanctions watchlists:

  • Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Sanctions List
  • Interpol Most Wanted List
  • Financial Action Task Force (FATF) High-Risk Jurisdictions List
  • European Union Consolidated Sanctions List
  • Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List
  • United Nations Security Council Sanctions List
  • World Bank Debarred Entities List
  • U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) Entity List

As you dive deeper into smaller countries, you may come across hundreds of other watchlists available online. Many of these watchlists are maintained by government agencies, and they might make their records public, adding to the complexity of the watchlist landscape.

From a business point of view, companies use watchlists to screen potential clients and associates, allowing them to identify and mitigate risks associated with high-risk individuals. At the same time, watchlist screening helps companies comply with AML regulations. 

AML Crime and Sanctions Watchlists

How to Check Watchlist Sources?

Various methods exist to check if someone’s name appears on AML watchlists. However, the most common methods consist of reviewing multiple databases manually or using advanced software that helps automatically identify high-risk individuals for you. 

With different accessible watchlists online, it’s actually convenient to conduct manual searches and review the lists directly. Despite that, there’s one big con that comes with manual operations like this. And without any surprise, it’s the lack of efficiency and limited scalability. There are dozens of watchlists and databases that must be checked, which takes up a lot of time, not to mention leaves room for error. 

Here are some tips to help conduct accurate watchlist checks: 

Tip #1: Determine the watchlists that align with your industry and risk profile. For instance, the OFAC sanctions list, Interpol Most Wanted list or PEP lists.

Tip #2: Access watchlist data directly from official sources, such as government websites or regulatory agencies. This ensures you get the most current and accurate information.

Tip #3: Ensure the watchlist data is comprehensive, reliable, and regularly updated to avoid missing critical information.

What is the Connection Between Watchlist Screening and AML Compliance?

Watchlist screening is a crucial component of every AML compliance program. Businesses aim to safeguard their financial integrity and establish a reliable customer base. In the financial industry, where banks and insurance companies encounter numerous fraudsters trying to exploit the regulatory system, watchlist screening becomes extremely valuable.

In general, AML compliance describes a company’s efforts to meet Anti-Money Laundering requirements. It involves a comprehensive checklist of compliance norms, including employee training, account monitoring, reporting, and internal controls. The primary objective of AML compliance programs is to identify, respond to, and mitigate fraud risks associated with money laundering and terrorist financing.

The significance of an effective compliance program lies in its ability to uncover potential money laundering risks, gain a deep understanding of non-compliance laws, and proactively prevent suspicious activities within the organization, which involves multiple steps and measures, such as watchlist screening. 

Why is Watchlist Screening Important?

Watchlist screening is an essential part of Customer Due Diligence (CDD) processes. It helps businesses assess the risk associated with potential clients and make informed decisions regarding their business relationships.

The importance of watchlist screening in AML compliance has been steadily increasing over the years. As financial crimes and money laundering activities have become more sophisticated, regulators are putting greater emphasis on comprehensive watchlist screening to prevent illicit activities.

Neglecting proper watchlist screening during the onboarding stage may lead to the following consequences:

  • Being prone to money laundering. Without watchlist screening, organizations risk enabling criminals to use their products or services for illicit activities, as it implies involvement in being used as a channel for money laundering.
  • Regulatory fines and penalties. Authorities impose substantial fines and penalties on businesses that neglect to maintain robust AML compliance programs, further emphasizing the need for effective watchlist screening.
  • Damaged reputation. Non-compliance with AML rules can negatively impact the business and its reputation among customers, business partners, investors, or stakeholders, leading to a loss of credibility.
Why Watchlist Screening is Important

The Challenges of Watchlist Screening for Businesses

Many businesses now integrate real-time watchlist screening into their transaction processes. This allows them to instantly flag suspicious activities and freeze transactions that are linked to high-risk individuals, providing a proactive approach to AML compliance.

Similarly, the challenge of false positives has driven the development of advanced algorithms and AI-powered solutions for watchlist screening. These technologies help businesses reduce false positives while ensuring the accurate identification of high-risk entities. In other words, automation helps watchlist screening to become more accurate and efficient in identifying potential risks.

However, there are multiple challenges that businesses must overcome when conducting watchlist screening, including: 

  • Complex entity matching. Watchlist screening often involves matching entities with multiple aliases or variations in names. AI systems must be capable of handling complex entity matching to avoid missing relevant matches.
  • Screening frequency. Businesses must implement proper screening procedures to determine the screening frequency. The frequency of watchlist screening varies depending on the business’s risk profile and regulatory requirements. High-risk industries, such as financial institutions, must conduct ongoing monitoring.
  • Ongoing monitoring. Unfortunately, AML compliance is not a one-time event but rather a continuous process. Ongoing watchlist screening is vital to keep up with the dynamic nature of financial crimes and changing regulations.
  • Cross-industry adoption. Watchlist screening is not limited to the financial sector alone. Industries like healthcare, real estate, and gaming are also adopting watchlist screening to prevent money laundering and illicit activities in their domains.

By evaluating these challenges, businesses can choose a watchlist screening solution that best aligns with their specific needs and regulatory requirements, effectively mitigating risks and ensuring a compliant AML program.

How to Choose the Best Watchlist Screening Software Provider?

Automated tools can swiftly process large volumes of data, providing real-time results. In the meantime, manual checks are time-consuming and cannot match the speed of automated screening. That’s why automated watchlist screening software comes in handy. 

All you need to do is choose a third-party vendor that provides AI-powered AML watchlist screening solutions that enable you to enter any name into a search field and find potential matches in different global watchlists. 

But it might seem easier than it actually is. For instance, these searches must handle different spelling variations, nicknames, and diverse alphabets, such as Chinese and Arabic characters. Moreover, some providers offer limited watchlist data, which can become problematic when conducting screenings across multiple regions and countries.

Here are the top 3 factors businesses should consider before selecting an AML watchlist screening provider:

  1. Customization options. Different industries have specific risk profiles and compliance requirements. A good provider should offer customization options to tailor the screening process to the business’s unique needs. Additionally, depending on the vendor, you might have the opportunity to conduct watchlist screening with built-in KYC, PEP, sanctions, and adverse media checks. This approach often leads to cost savings, streamlined operations, and reduced friction during the customer onboarding process.
  2. Performance and speed. Real-time screening is vital for businesses. Automated watchlist screening saves time by swiftly processing large volumes of data, making it an ideal solution for companies seeking to scale their operations efficiently. That’s why your chosen watchlist screening solution should provide quick and efficient results without compromising accuracy or security.
  3. User experience. The watchlist screening system must be user-friendly, providing clear reporting and audit trails essential for conducting audits and reporting within a robust AML compliance program. It’s natural that easy-to-understand reports will help you to demonstrate complete AML compliance to regulators.

How iDenfy Helps You Perform Watchlist Screening

Great news! If you don’t know where to start or you need enhancements in your AML compliance program, iDenfy’s all-in-one fraud prevention platform is what you need. 

Under a single platform, we offer a comprehensive range of services, including watchlist screening, PEP and sanctions screening, adverse media checks, and ongoing monitoring tools.

Along with that, we have customer risk-scoring and identity verification solutions that can be customized and white-labeled to fit your company’s needs — all in compliance with KYC and AML regulations. 

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