Pay attention to money laundering—even if you’re not a bank

Published | Tuesday, July 24th, 2018


If your organization is in the financial sector, the chances are high that you’re aware of the regulatory requirements and risks around money laundering and terrorism financing.

In the U.S. alone, penalties for failure to comply have been levied in terms of millions and sometimes billions of dollars. But what about other industries? What sort of risks are there and what measures are needed to address them?

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recently produced a report entitled “Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures: United States – Mutual Evaluation Report.” It provides comprehensive insights (263 pages worth) into the scope and scale of money laundering—estimated as being in the hundreds of billions of dollars globally—as well as its complexity. The report refers to the very large numbers of regulatory authorities involved in anti-money laundering (AML) measures. It points out that the financial sector bears most of the burden in terms of regulations and the general robustness of “the systems and processes for implementing preventive measures, including for on-boarding customers, transaction monitoring and reporting suspicious transactions.” This is the aspect of AML that first comes to mind for many people: financial institutions having to “know their customer” and monitor and report on deposits over $10K.

Corruption is always adapting and expanding…

For both individuals and organizations holding large amounts of illicit funds, (e.g., drug cartels and corrupt politicians), laundering money through financial institutions would seem to be a pretty obvious thing to do. But most criminals now know that this is relatively easy to detect and so, in response, they are turning to a tremendous number of alternative—and often highly creative—ways to “legitimize” funds.

Laundering techniques include everything from “smurfing” funds into small instruments like money orders, processing funds through heavily cash-based businesses such as parking lots, car washes and casinos, and using large amounts of cash for casino gambling. All of these are commonly used methods to turn large sums of cash into something that can be claimed to be legitimately generated. Real estate or luxury goods (e.g., yacht) purchases and sales offer another relatively easy way to turn bad money into apparently good. Then there are more complex schemes, with carefully structured shell companies and trusts—usually based offshore.

Trade-based money laundering includes a whole range of variant schemes in which the fraudulent movement of funds can be disguised by artificially inflating, or deflating, the value of goods and services that are invoiced. And the list of potential laundering schemes goes on.

The TATF report acknowledges the challenges in dealing with just some of these schemes, noting that:

“The regulatory framework has some significant gaps, including minimal coverage of certain institutions and businesses (investment advisers (IAs), lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, trust and company service providers (other than trust companies). Minimal measures are imposed on designated non-financial businesses and professions (DNFBPs) …”

Trade-based money laundering: probably the most pervasive, but hardest to detect

For almost any organization involved in international trade, trade-based money laundering (TBML) needs particular consideration from a risk and compliance perspective. The Global Financial Integrity organization has reported research that shows that TBML is by far the most common method of laundering money internationally, particularly for drug cartels, and involves more than a trillion dollars globally. Much of this takes place through over or under invoicing for goods and services.

How directly your organization could be used within such schemes depends on multiple factors—but the risk is very real that your organization is involved somehow.

Money laundering undermines the integrity of business activities

How much effort should risk and compliance managers, as well as auditors, put into the risks of money laundering and into AML measures? One response, for those in less regulated industries at least, could be to simply ignore the risks and assume that regulatory authorities are too busy to spend time looking at your organization.

Apart from the risks of penalties from regulatory authorities, which may or may not be that great, there is arguably a bigger picture issue to be considered: Criminal activities and the associated multiple ways of laundering of funds undermine the integrity of business and financial and social structures around the world (not to mention the associated risks of reputation damage and exposure to loss).

There are several good reasons why it is worth thinking about the likelihood that your organization’s customers, or vendors or business partners are somehow using your organization to facilitate the money laundering process.

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