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How Money Laundering Works

By Julia Layton

In October 2005, U.S. congressman Tom DeLay was indicted on money laundering charges, forcing him to step down as House Majority Leader. Money laundering is a serious charge — in 2001, U.S. prosecutors obtained almost 900 money-laundering convictions with an average prison sentence of six years. The rise of global financial markets makes money laundering easier than ever — countries with bank-secrecy laws are directly connected to countries with bank reporting laws, making it possible to anonymously deposit “dirty” money in ­one country have it transferred to any other country for use. ­

Money lau­ndering happens in almost every country globally, and a single scheme typically involves transferring money through several countries to obscure its origins. This article will learn exactly what money laundering is and why it’s necessary, who launders money and how they do it, and what steps the authorities are taking to foil money-laundering operations.

At its simplest, money laundering is making money that comes from Source A looks like it comes from Source B. In practice, criminals are trying to disguise the origins of money obtained through illegal activities, so it looks like it was obtained from legal sources. Otherwise, they can’t use the money because it would connect them to criminal activity, and law-enforcement officials would seize it.

Money Laundering Basics

The most common types of criminals who need to launder money are drug traffickers, embezzlers, corrupt politicians and public officials, mobsters, terrorists, and con artists. Drug traffickers are in serious need of good laundering systems because they deal almost exclusively in cash, which causes all sorts of logistics problems. Not only does cash draw the attention of law-enforcement officials, but it’s also cumbersome. Cocaine worth $1 million on the street weighs about 44 pounds (20 kg), while a stash of U.S. dollars worth $1 million weighs about 256 pounds (116 kg).

The basic money laundering process has three steps:

  1. Placement – At this stage, the launderer inserts the dirty money into a legitimate financial institution. This is often in the form of cash bank deposits. This is the laundering process’s riskiest stage because large amounts of cash are pretty conspicuous, and banks must report high-value transactions.
  2. Layering – Layering involves sending the money through various financial transactions to change its form and make it difficult to follow. Layering may consist of several bank-to-bank transfers, wire transfers between different accounts in different names in different countries, making deposits and withdrawals to continually vary the amount of money in the accounts, changing the money’s currency, and purchasing high-value items (boats, houses, cars, diamonds) to change the form of the money. This is the most complex step in any laundering scheme, and it’s all about making the original dirty money as hard to trace as possible.
  3. Integration – At the integration stage, the money re-enters the mainstream economy in legitimate-looking form — it appears to come from a legal transaction. This may involve a final bank transfer into the account of a local business in which the launderer is “investing” in exchange for a cut of the profits, the sale of a yacht bought during the layering stage, or the purchase of a $10 million screwdriver from a company owned by the launderer. At this point, the criminal can use the money without getting caught. It’s tough to catch a launderer during the integration stage if there is no documentation during the previous stages.

Money laundering is a crucial step in the success of drug trafficking and terrorist activities, not to mention white-collar crime. Countless organizations are trying to get a handle on the problem. In the United States, the Department of Justice, the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency all have divisions investigating money laundering and the underlying financial structures that make it work. State and local police also investigate cases that fall under their jurisdiction. Because global financial systems play a major role in most high-level laundering schemes, the international community is fighting money laundering through various means, including the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) 2005, which has 33 member states and organizations. The United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund also have anti-money-laundering divisions.

Money-laundering Methods

In 1996, Harvard-educated economist Franklin Jurado went to prison for cleaning $36 million for Colombian drug lord Jose Santacruz-Londono. People with a whole lot of dirty money typically hire financial experts to handle the laundering process. It’s complex by necessity: The whole idea is to make it impossible for authorities to trace the dirty money while it’s cleaned.

There are lots of money-laundering techniques that authorities know about and probably countless others that have yet to be uncovered. Here are some of the more popular ones:

  • Black Market Colombian Peso Exchange This system, which the DEA calls the “largest drug money-laundering mechanism in the Western Hemisphere” [ref], came to light in the 1990s. A Colombian official sat down with people in the U.S. Treasury Department to discuss the problem of U.S. goods being illegally imported into Colombia using the black market. When they considered the issue alongside the drug-money-laundering problem, U.S. and Columbian officials put two and two together and discovered that the same mechanism achieved both ends. This complex setup relies on the fact that there are businesspeople in Colombia — typical importers of international goods — who need U.S. dollars to conduct business. To avoid the Colombian government’s taxes on the money exchange from pesos to dollars and the tariffs on imported goods, these businessmen can go-to black market “peso brokers” who charge a lower fee to conduct the transaction outside of government intervention. That’s the illegal importing side of the scheme. The money-laundering side goes like this: A drug trafficker turns over dirty U.S. dollars to a peso broker in Colombia. The peso broker then uses those drug dollars to purchase goods in the United States for Colombian importers. When the importers receive those goods (below government radar) and sell them for pesos in Colombia, they pay back the peso broker from the proceeds. The peso broker then gives the drug trafficker the equivalent in pesos (minus a commission) of the original, dirty U.S. dollars that began the process.
  • Structuring deposits, also known as smurfing, entails breaking up large amounts of money into smaller, less-suspicious amounts. In the United States, this smaller amount has to be below $10,000 — the dollar amount at which U.S. banks have to report the government’s transaction. The money is then deposited into one or more bank accounts either by multiple people (smurfs) or by a single person over an extended period of time.
  • Overseas banks Money launderers often send money through various “offshore accounts” in countries with bank secrecy laws, meaning that they allow anonymous banking for all intents and purposes. A complex scheme can involve hundreds of bank transfers to and from offshore banks. According to the International Monetary Fund, “major offshore centers” include the Bahamas, Bahrain, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Antilles, Panama, and Singapore.
  • Underground/alternative banking Some countries in Asia have well-established, legal alternative banking systems that allow for undocumented deposits, withdrawals, and transfers. These are trust-based systems, often with ancient roots, that leave no paper trail and operate outside government control. This includes the hawala system in Pakistan and India and the fie Chen system in China.
  • Shell companies These are fake companies that exist for no other reason than to launder money. They take in dirty money as “payment” for supposed goods or services but actually provide no goods or services; they create the appearance of legitimate transactions through fake invoices and balance sheets.
  • Investing in legitimate businesses Launderers sometimes place dirty money in otherwise legitimate businesses to clean it. They may use large businesses like brokerage firms or casinos that deal in so much money it’s easy for the dirty stuff to blend in, or they may use small, cash-intensive businesses like bars, car washes, strip clubs, or check-cashing stores. These businesses may be “front companies” that actually provide a good or service but whose real purpose is to clean the launderer’s money. This method typically works in one of two ways: The launderer can combine his dirty money with the company’s clean revenues — in this case, the company reports higher revenues from its legitimate business than it’s really earning; or the launderer can hide his dirty money in the company’s legitimate bank accounts in the hopes that authorities won’t compare the bank balance to the company’s financial statements.

Most money-laundering schemes involve combining these methods, although the Black Market Peso Exchange is pretty much a one-stop-shopping system once someone smuggles the cash to the peso broker. The variety of tools available to launderers makes this a difficult crime to stop, but authorities do catch the bad guys now and then. In the next section, we’ll take a look at two busted money-laundering operations.

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