Money Laundering

by John Bandler

Money laundering is when criminals try to hide the illegal nature of their criminal profits.

Money laundering is a criminal offense, defined by criminal statutes, with certain elements that need to be proven in order to convict someone of the charge.

Money laundering is also a typology and process that criminals use as a part of their business. The way they make their criminal business worthwhile.

Money laundering is also the subject of many laws and regulations that relate to anti-money laundering (AML) and counter terrorist financing (CTF). These laws and regulations impose legal duties upon banks and certain financial institutions to investigate and report on criminal activity.

My experience with money laundering

My experience with money laundering was as a relatively junior prosecutor who stumbled into a global cybercrime case that involved trafficking of stolen credit card data (and other stolen data), and payments and laundering of virtual currency and other payment mechanisms. These cybercriminals, identity thieves, and money launderers seemed to use almost every method of value transfer possible (but didn't, more exist).

That investigation became known as the Western Express Case. Of course, virtual currency preceded cryptocurrency, and cryptocurrency is a type of virtual currency, as I discuss in another article.

The typical money laundering stages

The typical money laundering stages were designed for cash based street crime, and include

  • Earn criminal proceeds (I add this stage, but many don't and start with the next)
  • Place the funds into the financial system
  • Layer the criminal proceeds to disguise the true source, destination, ownership
  • Integrate criminal proceeds into the normal legitimate means of spending and storing value.

The above stages make good sense for cash-based street crime like drugs, prostitution, extortion, and gambling, especially regarding placement of the funds into the financial system. (See the Breaking Bad video clips to illustrate why). But the stages will be somewhat different for cybercrime, since the illicit funds are typically not earned in cash.

The typical money laundering criminal elements

Money laundering criminal statutes can be worded in a complicated manner, but let's break down what the basic elements are.

Remember, to convict someone of the crime of money laundering, we don't care about the "stages" or "typologies", we need to focus on the language of that particular statute.

Typically, the elements of a money laundering crime will be:

  • Funds are criminal proceeds
  • Defendant had knowledge they are criminal proceeds
  • Transactions to disguise ownership, source, or destination of the criminal proceeds

Surprisingly, it was not until 1986 that the U.S. created money laundering criminal statutes.

The duty to combat money laundering

The U.S. (and other countries) create a duty among financial institutions to have anti-money laundering programs to detect and report upon criminal activity, money laundering activity, and suspicious activity.

These can be found in the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and other statutes.

Banks and other financial institutions or certain businesses may have duties to:

  • Have an AML and CTF program, with written policies and procedures, competent trained personnel, appropriate tools, and etc.
  • Learn about their customers and what their business is, including with
    • Know Your Customer (KYC)
    • Customer Due Diligence (CDD)
    • Transaction monitoring
  • Monitor for suspicious activity
  • Report suspicious activity to the government via suspicious activity reports (SARs)
  • Report certain cash transactions to the government via currency transaction reports (CTRs)

Organizations that fall short can face regulatory action, civil lawsuit, and even criminal action.

Why do criminals launder money?

Simply put, many (or most) criminals commit their crimes for profit, out of greed, to make money. Some criminals are good at what they do, and earn a lot of illegal money. If they want to stay out of jail and make use of their illegal income, they need to launder their money.

What about virtual currency and cryptocurrency

Virtual currency and cryptocurrency is used to launder money. That should be no surprise to anyone. I talk about that more in my other article.

What about cybercrime?

Most cybercrime is for profit, so cybercriminals need to launder their money too, and that's how I started learning about money laundering.

Cybercriminals are going to use virtual currency and cryptocurrency also. That's clear.

I talk about that more in my other article.

My articles and books

Some laws and regulations

YouTube videos on money laundering (fun watching)

Fun YouTube videos, excerpted from some really good TV. Watch the clip, then you may decide to watch more. Consider how the typologies for virtual currency and cybercrime money laundering will differ from cash money laundering depicted in these videos.

  • The Wire, Baltimore detectives follow the money trail to see who is really profiting from street drug dealing.
    • YouTube title: The Wire - Chasing the Paper Trail
    • The Wire, Season 1, Episode 9, “Game Day,” Blown Deadline Productions/HBO, 2002.
  • Breaking Bad, a criminal defense attorney (who is also a criminal) explains money laundering.
    • YouTube title: Breaking Bad, Saul explains money laundering – subtitle
    • Breaking Bad, Season 3, Episode 9, “Kafkaesque,” High Bridge Entertainment/Grand Via Productions/Sony Pictures Television, 2010.
  • Breaking Bad, money laundering wife explains to husband the difficulties laundering all their dirty cash.
    • YouTube title: Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season - How Much Is Enough?.
    • Breaking Bad, Season 5, Episode 8,  "Gliding Over All”, High Bridge/Sony Pictures.
  • Scarface, a ridiculous 80’s music video montage that shows laundering of cash criminal proceeds.
    • YouTube title: Scarface | Push It to the Limit
    • Scarface, Universal Pictures, 1983.
  • Ozark Official Season 1 Trailer
    • I need to mention Ozark, but should mention that I lost interest sometime after Season 1
    • YouTube title: Ozark | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix
  • Global Witness, Undercover in New York (attorneys)

More references and additional reading on this site

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Page created 12/14/2023. Updated 1/16/2024.