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Banks warn against bad taste jokes in online banking payments

Banks say that people transferring money should not joke around in the message field of the transfer protocol, as they are obliged to report suspicious activity to the police. A new, quick trans-European transfer service developed by the European Payments Council will be tested this year, with Finland taking part in 2018.

Kädet laskevat rahanippua.
Banks keep an eye on money transfers that could be going towards illicit purposes. Image: Matthias Balk / EPA

When transferring sums of money to the accounts of friends or family members, the message box in banking software may tempt some to inscribe a humorous or off-colour message to be read by the recipient.

Attempts at comedy may end in disaster, however, if even oblique references to illicit dealings such as drug trafficking, money laundering or funding terrorism can be interpreted as legal offenses.

"All the details of a transaction are carefully scrutinised in order to prevent illegal acts and observe sanctions," says OP Group specialist Katariina Säntti. "Brief details on the nature of the wire can be written in the message box, with words like 'Theatre tickets' or whatever applies."

As to the extent of this oversight, Nordea Bank's Northern Finland regional director Anna-Leena Kukkonen says only that the protocols involve "large-scale monitoring, not the tracking of individual accounts".

Reporting obligation

"We contact the proper authorities when necessary, based on the [Act on Detecting and Preventing Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing]. Banks and financial institutions have the responsibility to know their clients, so that discrepancies in usual income or cost streams may prompt contact," Kukkonen explains.

She emphasises that banks are not allowed to access customer account information unless the customer in question is applying for a loan, when probing is permitted.

The Financial Supervisory Authority says that while banks do not have a direct legislative obligation to track the messages in transaction info boxes, sanctions-related monitoring requires it.

"In this way the bank can be sure that no payments go through to recipients or contacts blacklisted by the UN Security Council or based on ministerial EU decisions," says lawyer Sanna Atrila.

Quicker transfers abroad

The pilot phase of a new system of immediate money transfer developed by the European Payments Council will begin later this year, with Finnish banks participating in 2018. European transfer speeds are often slow, in Finland as well as internationally.

Chief specialist Inkeri Tolvanen from the interest group Finance Finland is involved in developing the SEPA (Single Euro Payments Area) transfer integration initiative, which volunteer banks in EU countries will soon test.

"Money moves between the banks involved in the programme within ten seconds, so technically speaking immediately, from country to country," says Tolvanen. "Both private and commercial customers use the service, and depending on the bank it can also be accessed via mobile, which means it can be used around the clock on any given day."

With online banking and its electronic services so commonplace, non-stop transfer potential may be overlooked as an asset. In 2015 Yle investigated domestic transfer rates and found that money only moved during certain hours (determined by cut-off times) on certain days (the weekend is not considered a 'banking day').

Finnish wire transfers run through Brussels, where the Euro Banking Association heads a Europe-wide payment accounting centre. The centre has made significant changes to inter-bank systems in order to facilitate transfers; individual banks also need systems overhauls for speeds to improve.

Future transactions potentially automated

Real-time wire transfers are gaining ground even in international banking. Currently money can be quickly moved from one account to another using various phone number-related services, usually used in mobile devices.

"The big thing now is real-time, mobile transferring," says Tolvanen.

"In the future, when smart technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, it could be that the actual transaction will require minimal or no effort. Future cars may refill their own tanks or batteries and refrigerators may order out for food when supplies are low. In such cases the costs would likely be charged and paid automatically," Tolvanen says.

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