Mastering AML screening: Processes and Best Practices

What is AML screening?

Anti-money laundering (AML) screening refers to the process of cross-checking customers against sanctions lists, watchlists, politically exposed person (PEP) lists, and adverse media. A strong AML screening process helps compliance teams systematically identify customers and transactions that may pose a risk of financial crime.

It’s crucial to note that AML screening alone does not fulfill all the AML obligations required by regulators. A comprehensive AML program should encompass additional elements such as customer identification, customer due diligence, ongoing AML risk assessment, and transaction monitoring.

Why is AML screening important?

Unfortunately, financial crime is everywhere. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that money laundering represents between 2 and 5% of global GDP every year. Any business is susceptible to be used to launder money from illicit sources. Sectors like banking, financial services, insurance, real estate, healthcare, gaming, gambling, and non-profit organizations are particularly exposed due to the nature of their operations and the potential for large financial transactions.

Governments worldwide have responded by implementing stringent AML and economic sanctions laws and regulations, such as the Bank Secrecy Act and the USA PATRIOT Act in the US and the EU Anti-Money Laundering Directives (AMLD) to ensure that businesses actively combat financial crime.

Moreover, customers are increasingly discerning, and associations with financial crime can erode trust. Upholding the highest standards of compliance not only ensures legal adherence for an organziation, but also establishes a solid foundation of trust with stakeholders, fostering a reputation of integrity and responsibility in the business landscape.

Types of AML screening

There are four primary types of AML screening: sanctions screening, watchlist screening, Politically Exposed Persons (PEP) screening, and adverse media screening. Each type addresses specific risk areas and employs distinct configurations in ensuring compliance with regulatory standards.

Sanctions screening

Sanctions screening is a process that involves cross-referencing customer data against government-issued sanctions lists like those provided by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) or the United Nations Security Council. These lists contain names associated with individuals, organizations, or countries subject to economic or trade sanctions due to involvement in unlawful activities. Sanctions screening is necessary to comply with the various international and national regulations to prevent financial institutions and organizations from inadvertently engaging in business relationships that violate sanctions regimes.

Organizations are advised to conduct sanctions screening on potential customers and transactions in real-time. Additionally, continuous monitoring of existing customers is essential to promptly identify whether changes to the sanctions list impact the customer base or transactions. Non-compliance may lead to legal repercussions, substantial financial penalties, and reputation damage.

Watchlist screening

Watchlist screening on the other hand is a process that involves cross-referencing customer data against lists compiled by various entities (such as government agencies, law enforcement, and financial institutions) to monitor individuals or entities that are suspected of involvement in illicit activities. Being on a watch list does not necessarily mean the person or entity has been proven guilty, but it signifies a need for increased scrutiny during the customer due diligence process.

Watchlists can vary significantly in size, ranging from localized watchlists maintained by specific jurisdictions to global databases with millions of entries. Examples include the FBI’s Most Wanted List or a financial institution’s own internal watch list. Due to the dynamic nature of risks, continuous monitoring and real-time screening are imperative. This ensures that any newly identified risks are promptly addressed, minimizing the potential for illicit activities to occur.

By conducting thorough watchlist screening, financial institutions can ensure that potential high-risk customers or transactions are identified and managed. This not only helps to mitigate risks but also demonstrates a commitment to regulatory compliance.

PEP screening

PEP screening is a specialized form of due diligence designed to identify individuals who hold prominent public positions and their relatives and close associates. These individuals, known as Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), present a higher risk for financial crime due to their influence and access to public funds. Identifying PEPs enables financial institutions to apply enhanced due diligence measures and assess the potential risks associated with a particular customer relationship.

PEP lists are compiled by various sources, including government agencies, international organizations, and commercial data aggregators. They contain names and affiliations of individuals holding political positions or with ties to influential figures. PEP lists can range from a few hundred to thousands of entries, depending on the scope of the screening program and the jurisdiction covered.

Real-time screening during onboarding and continuous monitoring is crucial to effective PEP compliance. Regular updates to PEP lists ensure that any changes in political status or affiliations are promptly identified and appropriate due diligence is conducted.

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Adverse media screening

Adverse media screening is a proactive measure used to detect negative news or information about customers or prospects, which may indicate involvement in illicit activities such as corruption, fraud, or money laundering. It complements other screening types by focusing on media sources.

Adverse media screening doesn’t rely on predefined lists. Instead, data aggregators scour a wide range of media sources, including news articles, reports, and publications, for potentially adverse information.

Continuous monitoring is essential in adverse media screening. Real-time algorithms and periodic reviews of media sources help identify emerging risks associated with customers or transactions.

While adverse media screening is not a mandatory part of the KYC process, it assists in identifying hidden risks, providing insights that aid in assessing customer risk profiles and reinforcing the commitment of financial institutions to combat financial crime.

Real-time screening vs. ongoing monitoring

Real-time screening is the process of cross-referencing customer names or transactions against AML lists as the activity occurs. It is usually used during customer onboarding for a swift and seamless experience. Moreover, it is used for transaction screening to ensure that payments are processed in real time. Organizations screen the sender, receiver, intermediaries, and other related parties before releasing the transaction.

On the other hand, ongoing monitoring is the process of regularly checking customers against sanctions, PEP lists, watchlists, and adverse media. Its objective is to track shifts in customer risk levels.

Why build an AML screening process?

Regulatory compliance

A robust AML screening process is designed to ensure compliance with legal obligations and regulatory standards. Further, a well-structured process demonstrates consistent execution of policies and procedures in combatting financial crime (particularly during customer onboarding and at regular intervals), provides a sound basis for meeting regulatory requirements and expectations, and facilitates the maintenance of a comprehensive audit trail, offering a transparent record of all checks performed.


A robust AML screening process instills uniformity in the treatment of customers and transactions. This consistency is vital to prevent oversights and ensure that no elements slip through the compliance net. High-risk cases are subjected to a predefined set of rigorous checks, standardizing procedures and effectively mitigating risk.

Operational efficiency

A well-defined AML screening process serves as the cornerstone for the automation and streamlining of critical tasks. By reducing the administrative burden on compliance teams, a process empowers them to focus on higher risk customers and transactions. Additionally, it enables the optimal allocation of resources to areas that require heightened scrutiny, ensuring a more targeted and effective compliance approach.

AML screening process

The AML screening process should consist of several key stages:

Data and list collection

Begin by aggregating comprehensive customer and transaction data, juxtaposed with curated screening lists comprising sanctions, PEPs, watchlists and adverse media.

Data preparation for enhanced accuracy

To bolster the efficacy of screening, conduct a thorough data quality assessment. This crucial step identifies any discrepancies, inconsistencies, or inaccuracies within the customer, transaction, and list data. Rectifying these issues ensures the data compared is complete, consistent, and accurate, setting the stage for more precise screening outcomes.

Screening algorithm configuration

This pivotal phase includes fine-tuning the screening algorithm to pinpoint matches. Here, you can strategically select and configure fields, such as name, gender, date of birth, and country, based on insights gained during the data preparation phase. This iterative process, tailored to each application and type of list, includes adjusting the level of fuzziness, aligning with the organization’s risk appetite. Regular testing and refinement of the screening algorithm configuration is paramount to consistently identifying risks while minimizing false alerts.

Alert generation

Establish the threshold for matching that should trigger an alert. This decision hinges on a risk-based approach, considering factors like list type, data quality, and overall risk tolerance. When the screening algorithm identifies a potential match, it generates an alert. This alert serves as a call for further investigation into the implicated customer or transaction.

Alert resolution

Alerts undergo review by analysts who determine the appropriate course of action. They may clear the alert if it is deemed a non-match with the list record, escalate suspicions of a potential match, or confirm it as a valid hit. Cleared alerts may be subsequently added to a safelist to preempt duplicate alerts during ongoing monitoring, streamlining the process.

Ongoing monitoring

Sanctions, PEP, watchlists, and adverse media lists undergo frequent changes, necessitating regular checks against the customer database and transactions. A judicious strategy, where appropriate, involves screening new AML list entries against the entirety of the customer database. Simultaneously, any new or updated customer records should undergo screening against all relevant AML lists. This dynamic approach assists in identifying any any emerging risks.

How to improve your AML screening process?

Constantly striving for improvements in your AML screening process will enable you to reduce risk and enhance operational efficiency for your organization. Explore this comprehensive set of measures to elevate your AML screening process:

Data quality assessment

Ensuring that your customer and transaction data is of the highest quality is fundamental to improving the accuracy of your AML screening outcomes. Inaccurate, inconsistent, and incomplete data can lead to false positives or negatives, potentially exposing your organization to unnecessary risks.

Conducting a thorough assessment of your data will take you a long way to optimizing it for AML screening.

Advanced screening technology

Leveraging cutting-edge screening tools is pivotal to improving the accuracy and efficiency of your AML screening. These technologies are designed to handle large volumes of data, identify complex patterns, and reduce the likelihood of overlooking sanctioned or high-risk customers.

Invest in state-of-the-art AML screening software or platforms. Ensure that the technology is tailored to your specific needs and integrates seamlessly with your existing systems. Regularly update and optimize the technology to stay ahead of emerging risks.

Fine-tuned screening configuration

Fine tuning your screening configuration will help you improve screening results. This tuning ensures systematic detection of individuals and entities on AML lists while minimizing false positives.

Regularly test and refine your screening configurations. Leverage insights gained from the data quality assessment to select the most pertinent fields. Evaluate and adjust the level of fuzziness to achieve optimal results. Use a “poison file” to rigorously test and validate the efficacy of your configurations.

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Well-trained personnel are an essential component of an effective AML screening process. They possess the ability to discern red flags, conduct more accurate case reviews, and utilize screening technology proficiently, and they are more likely to exhibit long-term commitment.

Develop comprehensive training programs encompassing AML procedures, adept alert review, and effective investigation techniques. Provide ongoing training to ensure staff remains abreast of evolving risks and compliance imperatives.

Monitor data load for customer, transaction, and list data

Vigilant oversight of data loading processes and regular updates to AML lists are crucial safeguards against potential disruptions in your operations. Loading errors or omissions can occur, and without monitoring, they may go unnoticed, posing a significant risk.

Implement robust monitoring mechanisms to track the loading of customer and transaction data. Additionally, ensure that AML lists are consistently and promptly updated. This diligence ensures that you are consistently operating with the most current and reliable data, minimizing the potential for operational disruptions.

Leaving AML screening process steps open to interpretation

Leaving AML screening process steps open to interpretation

It’s imperative to establish clear and unequivocal guidelines for each step in the AML screening process. Ambiguity or room for interpretation can lead to inconsistencies and potentially compromise the effectiveness of your compliance efforts. Ensure that every team member understands their role and responsibilities in the process to maintain a uniform and reliable screening procedure.

Not documenting your process

Documentation is the cornerstone of any effective AML compliance program. Failing to meticulously record each step of your screening process can hinder accountability, impede audits, and potentially result in regulatory penalties. Maintain detailed records, including rationale for decisions made, to demonstrate due diligence in your compliance efforts.

Forgetting that AML processes will always be a work in progress

AML regulations and illicit activities evolve constantly. A static AML screening process quickly becomes obsolete. It is imperative to recognize that your AML framework is a dynamic endeavor, necessitating regular reviews and updates. Stay on top of of emerging threats, regulatory changes, and industry best practices and adapt your screening process accordingly.


What is the purpose of AML screening?

AML screening serves the purpose of identifying individuals or entities listed in various AML databases. Each list corresponds to a specific type of financial crime risk, thereby guiding the appropriate due diligence procedures required to mitigate the identified risk.

Who should perform AML screening?

AML screening is an essential process for all organizations operating under AML and sanctions regulations. It is an integral part of customer due diligence, serving as a crucial procedure to detect and mitigate the risks associated with financial crime.

What are the possible consequences of not conducting AML screening?

Non-compliance with sanctions, anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorist financing (CTF) laws can lead to severe consequences. These may encompass substantial monetary fines, legal proceedings, tarnished reputations, and even official sanctions.

What is a false positive in AML screening?

Within AML screening, a false positive refers to an alert generated by the AML screening tool, initially presumed to match an AML list record. However, upon thorough investigation, it is determined not to be a genuine match. This occurrence is typically attributed to factors like poor data quality, the utilization of imprecise screening algorithms, or overly-loose screening configurations.

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