Dutch Lenders Closing, Rejecting Accounts for Conspiracy Groups During Pandemic

By Koos Couvée

Record anti-money laundering penalties, tougher rules and a growing awareness of the threat of financial crime that certain industries present have led banks in the Netherlands to cut ties with thousands of long-term customers in recent years.

Those decisions by individual firms within the country’s increasingly risk-averse financial industry have sparked dozens of legal battles as clients deemed inherently vulnerable to organized crime-related illicit finance, such as real estate companies, corporate services providers and coffeeshops that sell marijuana, challenged the loss of their accounts in court.

Even as Dutch lenders seem to have largely accepted their role in stamping out the finances of organized crime, a new threat has appeared: account holders who spread anti-vaccine propaganda and COVID-19 conspiracy theories during the global pandemic.

On Oct. 7, a court in Amsterdam ordered ING, the country’s largest bank by assets, to maintain an account for Viruswaarheid, a group headed by Willem Engel, a local dance teacher who campaigns against the Dutch government’s handling of the pandemic and promotion of vaccines.

Viruswaarheid, which directly translates to “virus truth” in English, sued ING in May after the bank blocked Engel’s personal account and a business account he had opened under the name of his dance company, DancaMundo, and informed him of its decision to close them.

Engel, ING alleged, had used the latter account to collect donations from supporters of Viruswaarheid, then misdirected those funds towards unrelated costs, namely his purchase of a €50,000 plot of land in Spain.

After securing an account for DancaMundo, Engel legally fused the company with Viruswaarheid without informing ING, which at the time was still considering whether to onboard the latter as a client.

The bank argued that the merger, which Engel accomplished by changing DancaMundo’s corporate records, amounted to a breach of trust.

But in his Oct. 7 ruling, Judge H.C. Hoogeveen of the Court of Amsterdam sided with Viruswaarheid on the basis that “no concrete signs of money laundering or other criminal behavior” had emerged, and because the organization had yet to secure services from an alternative financial institution.

Triodos Bank, Bunq Bank, De Volksbank, Rabobank and SNS Bank had all declined to open an account for the group, and ABN Amro would likely do the same, Hoogeveen found in ruling against ING.

“At the very least, the rejections create the impression that banks do not want to enter into a relationship with because of its ideology,” he ruled.

The judge ordered ING to maintain Viruswaarheid’s account at least until next year, when the Court of Amsterdam rules on the legality of the bank’s decision in a separate case.

Hoogeveen delivered his ruling two months after Dutch daily NRC identified Viruswaarheid as one of several organizations that had lost access to their bank or payment accounts after allegedly spreading pandemic-related disinformation.

Bunq, a digital lender in Amsterdam, closed an account held by Doctors for Truth this year after the group suggested in a letter to other medical professionals that they would be held liable if any patients to whom they have administered COVID-19 vaccines suffered side effects.

Jaap Dieleman, an evangelist known for railing against the supposed evil of COVID-19 vaccinations, told NRC that Mollie, a payment services provider in Amsterdam, had closed the account of his foundation, De Heilbode, on the basis that the group’s message did not align with the financial institution’s corporate values.

Mollie also closed the account of Cafe Weltschmerz, a popular YouTube channel critical of government policies aimed at combating COVID-19 that has hosted a wide range of conspiracy theorists, including the notorious British fantasist David Icke.

De Blauwe Tijger, a small conservative publisher based in Groningen, claimed in August that ING had temporarily blocked its account after the Netherlands’ National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security described it as “a conduit for anti-government propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories” in a threat analysis last year.

Ministerial rebukes

Dutch Interior Minister Kasja Ollogren said in public remarks after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of ex-President Donald Trump that the online spread of misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories “gnaws at the foundations of our democratic constitutional state.”

Despite those concerns, lenders should not withhold financial services from customers solely on the basis of their ideology or to limit reputational risk, Ollengren warned in a Sept. 16 letter to the Dutch Parliament.

“Banks have a social role in providing access to payment services,” Ollongren wrote. “In view of the freedom of expression, the [government] considers it important that banks are transparent [and] … clear about the concrete reasons for taking action against a certain customer.”

Ollongren penned the letter a week after Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra told lawmakers in a letter of his own that he wanted regulatory guidance updated to clarify that financial institutions should not categorically refuse to serve certain entire categories of customers viewed as inherently prone to illegality.

Andries Doets, an attorney with Eurius in Amsterdam, told ACAMS that Ollongren and Hoekstra’s letters suggest a growing unease within government over how quickly banks now move to close accounts.

This month’s ruling against ING and other recent court cases in which judges ordered lenders to maintain accounts for coffeeshops and other clients show that instead of assessing the specific threats that each particular client poses, financial institutions often sever ties to mitigate risk on a general basis, Doets said.

“The question is: are these genuine risks or are banks conducting a kind of symbol politics?”

A spokesperson for the Utrecht-based Rabobank told in an email that compliance officers regularly screen customers to identify those who “actively spread conspiracy theories and other proven disinformation.”

A spokesperson for the Dutch Banking Association said that lenders have neither created specific policies for handling disseminators of disinformation nor terminated accounts solely for ideological purposes.

Banks may choose to conduct deeper due-diligence investigations if they suspect a client’s behavior falls within the risk framework defined by the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security, such as engaging in violent extremism or spreading disinformation linked to hostile foreign states, the spokesperson said.

Contact Koos Couvée at

Topics : Anti-money laundering , Know Your Customer
Source: Netherlands
Document Date: October 27, 2021