The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has started asking bankers for written copies of "know your customer" policies before safety-and-soundness exams, and it's scaring some institutions out of their wits.
But FDIC officials said the alarm is unwarranted. The banking agencies have not yet released final "know your customer" rules. Examiners in several regions are asking for the policies, but no bank will be marked down for not yet having one.
"It's possible that if you have no policy at all, or just a bare-bones system, the examiner may make a comment in your report," one FDIC official said. "But we will not be citing any violations."
Rather, examiners in each region want to put banks on notice that they must start thinking about this area of compliance, according to the FDIC official, who asked that her name not be used.
The FDIC is the only agency to include the policies in its list of items to be reviewed during a safety-and-soundness exam. But officials at the Office of Thrift Supervision, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and Federal Reserve Board said their examiners also plan to quiz bankers about their know-your-customer practices.
The Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network is writing rules specifying what banks must include in such policies. The rules are intended to protect banks from potential money-laundering losses by forcing them to learn more about their depositors.
But those rules aren't expected until this fall at the earliest, which may explain why bankers were so shocked to see the policies mentioned in the FDIC letter.
"It's causing absolute panic to bankers who are getting this list," said Barbara Hurst, the editor of Bankers Hotline newsletter.
Bankers have reacted to the letters by rushing to complete the policies, according to industry officials.
"We didn't have one before we were notified," said Mike Davies, compliance officer at Douglas County Bank in Lawrence, Kan., which was examined late last year. "But we definitely have one now."
John J. Byrne, senior federal legislative counsel at the American Bankers Association, said several nervous bankers have called him about the FDIC's pre-exam letter. Most banks have some sort of informal policy for verifying customers' identities, but few have formal, written systems, he said.
Mr. Byrne said bankers shouldn't worry if they haven't yet written a policy. He said it would be "clearly out of bounds" to punish a bank when regulators haven't even finished writing the rule.
"If the examiner asks for it, and the banker doesn't have it, it should be the end of the discussion," he said.
The agencies have tried to give banks some preliminary guidance. For example, an FDIC official said banks should consider asking for credit reports and calling to verify phone numbers before opening an account.
The first box of checks for a new account could be delivered in person to a business to confirm its location. But many bankers have said the suggested steps are too cumbersome.