(Adds details from Treasury call, comment from bank group)
WASHINGTON/ST. LOUIS, July 30 (Reuters) - The United States unveiled on Wednesday a long-delayed rule that would require banks to identify hidden account owners in order to curb money laundering and peer behind shell companies.
The proposed rule would require financial institutions to report the "beneficial," or true owners of certain accounts, and identify anyone who owns at least a quarter of a company or legal entity, using a standardized format to collect the information.
The information could help the government pursue money launderers that may try to hide their identities behind shell companies or other legal entities to make it easier to move around illegal proceeds.
U.S. authorities have stepped up enforcement of anti-money laundering laws to clamp down on conduct ranging from drug trafficking to terrorism and organized crime.
"The beneficial ownership requirement is intended to provide us with an important new tool to track down the real people behind companies that abuse our financial system to secretly move and launder their illicit gains," David Cohen, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
Banks have been anxiously awaiting the proposal's language for more than two years, fearing that a strict approach would force them to spend huge amounts of time and money investigating the beneficial owners of thousands of legal entities with which they do business.
But the proposed rule suggests banks would only have to collect information about the people behind legal entities and verify identities, but not check that the information is accurate.
A senior Treasury official said that even if the ownership information is not verified, simply having the names of beneficial owners could be useful.
If someone provides false information to a bank, investigators could use that information "in demonstrating unlawful intent and in generating leads to identify additional evidence or co-conspirators," according to the proposal.
Some banks have already begun collecting beneficial ownership information in preparation for the rule. But the proposal requires a standardized format for reporting the information, meaning efforts so far may have been wasted, said Rob Rowe, a lawyer with the American Bankers Association (ABA), a trade group.
"It could be worse than starting from scratch because you've got to take what's there and adapt it and restructure it, so it may or may not be good," Rowe said, speaking about banks' current methods of collecting information about beneficial owners.
He said the ABA is reaching out to its members to collect feedback on the proposal.
The proposed rule is not binding and is still open for public comment for 60 days.
(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov in Washington and Brett Wolf in St. Louis; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Lisa Shumaker)