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Money-Laundering: Where It's Been, Where It's Going

Crime never takes a holiday, it seems, but criminals can afford to take off as much time as they want – especially those involved in money-laundering. That's how profitable money laundering is, continuing to frustrate lawmakers and legitimate institutions alike. And one of the biggest money-laundering headaches for law enforcement, banks, and society in general is the electronic, online version of this crime – known as transaction laundering.

Even though enforcement is arguably better than ever, bad actors have enough experience and ingenuity to continue to hide the illicit origins of funds, whether it's by stuffing wads of cash into pills that are swallowed by smugglers, or via financial transactions, like sales of legitimate products as stand-ins for illicit goods. Here are some trends we see in the area of money laundering, and what retailers, banks, and government can do about them:

Electronic Money-Laundering (Transaction Laundering) Will Continue to Thrive: In a transaction laundering scam, bad actors utilize legitimate payment systems to process payments for illicit goods or services, including pornography, drugs, weapons, and even terrorism. 2018 promised to be the best year for retailers in quite a while – perhaps ever, and much of the spending that was done by consumers was at online stores. TVs, clothing, gadgets, smartphones – more of many of consumers' favorite products were sold online than in traditional retail stores.

And along with the gadgets and gifts, consumers seeking other kinds of goods in the forms of child exploitation, illegal pharmaceuticals, even weapons – will have done more of their shopping online than ever, as well. Electronic money laundering – also known as transaction laundering, it's a practice that entails the use of legitimate payment systems to process payments for illicit goods or services – rose sharply in 2018. With online sales expect to approach four and a half trillion dollars by 2021, it makes sense that illicit online sales will grow as well.

More Attempts at AML Enforcement: If there was anything that characterized 2018 in the world of money-laundering, it was the massive crackdown by authorities on questionable practices at some of the biggest financial institutions in the world. That includes the investigation into hundreds of billions of dollars of money-laundering at Danske Bank, with a spillover into transactions handled by Deutsche Bank, along with investigations and fines against Goldman Sachs over money-laundering charges in Malaysia, and charges against a slew of Dutch banks for involvement in a Russian money-laundering scandal.

Those were just a few of the ongoing investigations against financial institutions worldwide, as authorities work harder than ever to stem money-laundering. All over the world – in the US, EU, South America, Asia, and elsewhere – governments are tightening their efforts against offenders, which means that more investigations, more prosecutions, and more fines are almost a given in 2019.

Spending Trends: If enforcement is on the rise, so are efforts to comply – meaning companies will be spending more to ensure that they are on the right side of the law. A report by Burton-Taylor says that global spending on AML and KYC will have hit a record $749 million by the end of 2018. It's a trend that has been ongoing. According to the report, spending by companies on external suppliers of AML/KYC data and information reached almost $500 million in 2016, more than double the level five years earlier.

According to the report, “Spending on AML/KYC compliance solutions is surging as regulatory pressure is forcing the financial industry to implement fully transparent, verifiable and auditable compliance records as part of their compliance obligations.” As enforcement gets even tighter in 2019, spending is likely to grow even more.

Cryptocurrency Crooks: If laundering “real” money wasn't enough, cyber-thieves are now laundering cryptocurrency in earnest. Much like money-laundering for official government currencies, cryptocurrency laundering involves using funds that bad actors seek to hide to purchase Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, depositing them in a Bitcoin wallet, and transferring the funds around to different wallets.

While cryptocurrency is generally very difficult to trace in any circumstance – wallets are identified by number, not name, and the transactions are generally anonymous - authorities can track crypto transactions. But that process is made much more difficult when funds are punted around the internet to various crypto exchanges. The popularity of cryptocurrency laundering is growing. A new report by Japanese banking officials says that cases of crypto-laundering jumped eight times in 2018, to nearly 6,000; in 2017, that figure was 700. With that, crypto-laundering constitutes just 2% of all Japanese money-laundering cases. So, there is plenty of room for growth in 2019.

Indeed, crypto-laundering was much on the minds of representatives at this year's G20 conference – and governments around the world have been working on plans to stem the problem before it grows to currency money-laundering proportions. Both the U.S. and the world body fighting money-laundering are working on rules and regulations for cryptocurrency regulation, which will include measures to prevent cryptocurrency laundering.

Solutions? It's Going to Take More Effort: Banks, governments, and regulators clearly have a problem, and if they are going to solve it, they are going to have to step up their game, US officials say. The Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), along with other agencies, are urging institutions to look to “innovative” AML techniques and technologies developed by the private sector for solutions. “Banks are encouraged to consider, evaluate, and where appropriate, responsibly implement innovative approaches in this area,” said FinCEN in its statement. Agencies “are committed to encouraging innovation through our supervisory approach and engagement with banks and thrifts, fintech companies, and others interested in innovation to ensure the safe, sound, and fair operation of the federal banking system.”

The statement didn't specify what kind of “innovative approaches” it expects, but whatever they are, banks and institutions need to ensure that they can catch money-laundering activities at all levels – both the “traditional” methods of plowing ill-gotten gains into businesses as such, as well as the newer transaction laundering scams that bad actors have been successfully playing in recent years.

 

 

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Ron Teicher

Ron Teicher

Founder and CEO

EverCompliant

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New York

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This post is from a series of posts in the group:

Innovation in Financial Services

A discussion of trends in innovation management within financial institutions, and the key processes, technology and cultural shifts driving innovation.


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