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Socially Aware Blog The Law and Business of Social Media

Watch What You Tweet: Proposed Social Media Guidance for Financial Institutions

Posted in Financial Institutions, Privacy

With the explosive growth of social media, consumers increasingly expect to be able to interact online with the companies from which they buy goods and services. As a result, financial institutions have begun to explore the use of social media, both to strengthen relationships with existing customers and to attract new ones. Financial institutions, however, have proceeded with extreme caution in using social media, in large part due to uncertainty as to the application of financial laws and regulations to social media and, to the extent they are applicable, how a financial institution can comply.

In response to industry requests for guidance on the use of social media, on January 23, 2013, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) requested public comment on proposed guidance (“Proposed Guidance”) for financial institutions relating to the use of social media. The Proposed Guidance is intended to help financial institutions understand potential risks associated with the use of social media and to communicate the expectations of the agencies that make up the FFIEC for how financial institutions should manage these risks. The Proposed Guidance, however, largely does not address how a financial institution may comply with any particular requirement when using social media.

The following provides an overview of the Proposed Guidance, which may be found here. Comments on the Proposed Guidance must be submitted to the FFIEC by March 25, 2013.

Background on the FFIEC

The FFIEC is a formal interagency body that is authorized to prescribe uniform principles, standards and report forms for the examination of financial institutions by the federal banking agencies, the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) and the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (CFPB) (collectively, the “Agencies”). Historically, banks were the main type of financial institutions to be the focus of FFIEC supervisory guidance; however, the Dodd-Frank Act expanded the membership of the FFIEC to include not only the federal banking agencies and the NCUA, but also the CFPB. As a result, FFIEC guidance now extends to any person supervised by the CFPB, including many types of non-bank financial institutions, such as mortgage brokers, payday lenders, consumer reporting agencies and debt collectors.

The Proposed Guidance

The Proposed Guidance is intended to help financial institutions understand potential risks associated with their use of social media, including compliance, reputation and operational risks, and to communicate the Agencies’ expectations for how financial institutions should manage these risks. Although the Proposed Guidance clarifies that, if finalized, it would not impose additional obligations on financial institutions, the Agencies each intend to issue any final guidance as supervisory guidance to the institutions that they supervise. As a result, financial institutions subject to the Agencies’ supervisory authority will be expected to use the guidance in their efforts to ensure that their risk management practices adequately address the risks associated with their use of social media, including those outlined in the finalized guidance.

“Social Media” Defined

The Proposed Guidance casts a wide net in defining “social media” as any “form of interactive online communication in which users can generate and share content through text, images, audio, and/or video.” From the Agencies’ perspective, it is social media’s interactive nature that distinguishes it from other online media. The Proposed Guidance includes the following non-exhaustive examples of media that the Agencies believe to fall within the definition:

  • micro-blogging sites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter);
  • forums, blogs, customer review websites and bulletin boards (e.g., Yelp);
  • photo and video sites (e.g., Flickr and YouTube);
  • professional networking sites (e.g., LinkedIn);
  • virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life); and
  • social games (e.g., FarmVille).

Risk Management Programs

A cornerstone of the Proposed Guidance is the expectation that a financial institution will maintain a risk management program through which it identifies, measures, monitors and controls risks related to its use of social media. The Proposed Guidance provides that a financial institution’s risk management program should include the following seven components:

  • A governance structure with clear roles and responsibilities whereby the institution’s board or senior management directs how the use of social media contributes to the institution’s strategic goals and that establishes controls and ongoing risk assessments.
  • Policies and procedures regarding the use and monitoring of social media and compliance with applicable consumer protection laws.
  • An employee training program regarding the institution’s policies and procedures for official, work-related use of social media, and potentially for other uses of social media, including defining impermissible activities.
  • An oversight process for monitoring information posted to proprietary social media sites administered by, or on behalf of, the financial institution.
  • A due diligence process for selecting and managing third-party service provider relationships in connection with social media.
  • Audit and compliance functions to ensure ongoing compliance with internal policies and applicable law.
  • Parameters for reporting to the institution’s board or senior management that will enable periodic evaluations of the social media program.

As in other areas of financial law and regulation, the expectation would be that the size and complexity of a financial institution’s risk management program would be commensurate with the breadth of the institution’s involvement in social media. For example, a financial institution that relies heavily on social media should have a more detailed program than a financial institution that uses social media only in a limited manner. Nonetheless, the Proposed Guidance indicates that a financial institution that does not use social media should still be prepared to address the potential for negative comments or complaints related to the institution that may arise within social media and also to provide guidance for employee use of social media.

Risk Areas Generally

The majority of the Proposed Guidance focuses on identifying potential risks related to a financial institution’s use of social media, including risk of harm to consumers. In particular, the Proposed Guidance identifies potential risks within three broad categories: (1) compliance and legal risk; (2) reputational risk; and (3) operational risk. While the Proposed Guidance catalogs the many risks presented by the use of social media, the focus is on the risks associated with compliance with consumer protection requirements. Nonetheless, the lengthy identification of risk areas would put financial institutions on notice of the broad scope of their responsibilities with respect to the use of social media.

Compliance and Legal Risk Areas

Compliance and legal risk relates to the risks associated with the failure to comply with laws, rules, regulations, prescribed practices, internal policies and procedures, and ethical standards and the related exposure to enforcement actions and/or private rights of action. The Proposed Guidance cautions that these risks are “particularly pertinent” for an emerging medium like social media where a financial institution’s policies and procedures may not have kept pace with changes in the marketplace.

Although a financial institution would be expected to ensure that it periodically evaluates and controls its use of social media to ensure compliance with all applicable legal obligations, the Proposed Guidance identifies examples of more than 15 federal laws where a financial institution may be exposed to compliance and legal risk. These examples are broken down into five general categories: (1) privacy; (2) deposit and lending products; (3) payment systems; (4) anti-money laundering; and (5) community reinvestment. Of note, none of these includes any exception regarding the use of social media. As a result, the Proposed Guidance cautions that, to the extent a financial institution uses social media to engage in covered activity (e.g., advertising a credit product), it would be required to comply with any applicable legal requirement that may relate to that covered activity.

We highlight below certain compliance risks identified in the Proposed Guidance that may be relevant to many financial institutions:

Privacy

  • A financial institution using social media should clearly disclose its privacy policies where required by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.
  • A financial institution maintaining its own social media site should ensure that it maintains and follows policies restricting access to the site to users 13 or older in a manner consistent with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
  • A financial institution should consider whether any unsolicited communication sent to consumers via social media complies with the limitations of the CAN-SPAM Act and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Deposit and Lending Products

  • A lender should ensure that its use of social media does not violate the Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibition on making statements in advertising that would discourage, on a prohibited basis, a reasonable person from applying for credit.
  • A lender that advertises credit products in any form of social media communication should ensure that it does so in a manner that complies with Regulation Z’s advertising requirements.
  • A debt collector must comply with Fair Debt Collection Practices Act limitations when conducting covered activities through social media, including, for example, being cognizant that that any social media communication does not disclose the existence of a debt or harass or embarrass consumers about their debts (e.g., a debt collector writing about a debt on a Facebook wall).

Payment Systems

  • A financial institution using social media to facilitate an electronic fund transfer for a consumer should consider whether it is required by Regulation E to, for example, provide any required disclosures to the consumer.

Anti-Money Laundering

  • Financial institutions should be aware of emerging areas of Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering risk in connection with social media, including, for example, the fact that virtual world Internet games and digital currencies present a high risk for money laundering and terrorist financing and should be monitored accordingly.

Community Reinvestment

  • A depository institution subject to the Community Reinvestment Act should ensure that its policies and procedures for its own social media properties address the appropriate monitoring of public comments.

Reputational Risk Areas

For purposes of the Proposed Guidance, reputational risk relates to the risks arising from negative public opinion. A financial institution engaged in social media activities would be expected to be sensitive to and properly manage the reputational risks that may arise from its social media activities. The Proposed Guidance provides a number of considerations for financial institutions related to reputational risk in the context of social media use, including that a financial institution should:

  • have appropriate policies in place to monitor and address in a timely manner the fraudulent use of its brand, such as through phishing or spoofing attacks;
  • have procedures to address risks associated with members of the public posting confidential or sensitive information (e.g., an account number) on the institution’s social media page or site;
  • weigh the risks and the benefits of using a third party to conduct social media activities, including, for example, the ability of a financial institution to control content on a site owned or administered by a third party; and
  • consider the feasibility of monitoring question and complaint forums on social media sites to ensure that customer inquiries, complaints or comments are addressed in a timely and appropriate manner.

Operational Risk Areas

For purposes of the Proposed Guidance, operational risk relates to the risk of loss resulting from inadequate or failed processes, people or systems. These include the risks posed by a financial institution’s use of information technology, including social media. In light of the vulnerability of social media platforms, the Proposed Guidance indicates that a financial institution should ensure that its internal controls designed to protect its information technology systems and to safeguard customer information from malicious software adequately address social media usage. And, in a related point, a financial institution’s incident response program should extend to security incidents involving social media.

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If the FFIEC finalizes the Proposed Guidance, financial institutions should expect that the Agencies will independently issue the finalized guidance as supervisory guidance to the institutions that they supervise. In such a case, financial institutions will be expected to use the guidance as part of their efforts to address the risks associated with the use of social media and to ensure that their risk management programs provide effective oversight and controls related to the use of social media. Until final guidance is in place, it is important for financial institutions to be cognizant of and consider the extent of their usage of social media and the risks associated with that use and whether existing controls address the types of risks identified in the Proposed Guidance. Finally, financial institutions may also wish to consider whether they will provide comments to the FFIEC on the Proposed Guidance, including, for example, identifying any technological or other impediments to compliance with otherwise applicable law when using social media.