FDIC Urges Banks to Assess Risk in Dealings with Online Lenders

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. sought to ease concerns about its view of banks' affiliations with online lenders, saying institutions correctly managing their third-party relationships "are neither prohibited nor discouraged" from processing payments for legal entities.

"Those that are operating with the appropriate systems and controls will not be criticized for providing payment processing services to businesses operating in compliance with applicable law," the agency said in a letter Friday to all the institutions it supervises.

Several GOP lawmakers and industry representatives have relayed complaints to the agency from online lenders, claiming that the FDIC is forcing banks to cut ties with certain lenders at a time when some lenders are allegedly operating without valid licenses and in violation of state usury laws. Advocates for the lending industry say that, as a result of the FDIC's actions, even online lenders that are following all relevant laws are losing access to the automated clearinghouse, or ACH, network.

But the FDIC indicated that it is not out to harm a specific industry.

In the letter, which followed 2012 guidance on proper risk management for banks that provide services to third-party payment processors, the agency reiterated that its concern is about how much due diligence banks do before providing payment services for "higher-risk" merchants. The agency has previously included payday lenders, debt consolidation firms, pornography businesses and others among higher-risk entities needing payment services that it says require greater scrutiny.

"The proper management of relationships with merchant customers engaged in higher-risk activities is essential," the FDIC's letter released Friday said. "Financial institutions need to assure themselves that they are not facilitating fraudulent or other illegal activity. Institutions could be exposed to financial or legal risk should the legality of activities be challenged."

Responding to congressional concerns about the FDIC's supervisory approach, Martin Gruenberg, the agency's chairman, said in a Sept. 17 letter that the regulator would communicate to its banks that "the FDIC's focus is the proper management of the banks' relationships with their customers, particularly those engaged in higher-risk activities, and not underlying activities that are permissible under state and federal law."

The letter on Friday said the agency "is aware that some payment processors or merchants may target institutions that are unfamiliar with the related risks or that lack proper due diligence or controls to manage these risks."

"The focus of FDIC examinations is to assess whether financial institutions are adequately overseeing activities and transactions they process and appropriately managing and mitigating related risks," the letter said.

Online lenders — including those operating offshore as well as some that claim sovereign status through affiliation with Native American tribes — have been the subject of intense scrutiny from state authorities as well as the Department of Justice for allegedly exceeding state interest rate caps, operating without proper licenses and debiting funds from borrowers' bank accounts without authority to do so.

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