Placing 'dirty' money in a service company, where it is layered with legitimate income and then integrated into the flow of money, is a common form of money laundering.

Money laundering is the process of illegally concealing the origin of money, obtained from illicit activities such as drug trafficking, corruption, embezzlement or gambling, by converting it into a legitimate source. It is a crime in many jurisdictions with varying definitions. It is usually a key operation of organized crime.

In United States law, money laundering is the practice of engaging in financial transactions to conceal the identity, source, or destination of illegally gained money. In United Kingdom law, the common law definition is wider. The act is defined as "taking any action with property of any form which is either wholly or in part the proceeds of a crime that will disguise the fact that property is the proceeds of a crime or obscure the beneficial ownership of said property".[citation needed]

In the past, the term "money laundering" was applied only to financial transactions related to organized crime. Today its definition is often expanded by government and international regulators such as the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to mean "any financial transaction which generates an asset or a value as the result of an illegal act," which may involve actions such as tax evasion or false accounting. In the UK, it does not need to involve money, but any economic good. Courts involve money laundering committed by private individuals, drug dealers, businesses, corrupt officials, members of criminal organizations such as the Mafia, and even states.

As financial crime has become more complex and financial intelligence more important to combating international crime and terrorism, money laundering has become a prominent political, economic, and legal debate. Money laundering is ipso facto illegal; the acts generating the money almost always are themselves criminal in some way (for if not, the money would not need to be laundered).


While existing laws were used to fight money laundering during the period of Prohibition in the United States during the 1930s, dedicated Anti-Money Laundering legislation was only implemented in the 1980s.[citation needed] Organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition and a large source of new funds that were obtained from illegal sales of alcohol. The successful prosecution of Al Capone on tax evasion brought in a new emphasis by the state and law enforcement agencies to track and confiscate money, but existing laws against tax evasion could not be used once gangsters started paying their taxes.

In the 1980s, the war on drugs led governments again to turn to money laundering rules in an attempt to track and seize the proceeds of drug crimes in order to catch the organizers and individuals running drug empires. It also had the benefit, from a law enforcement point of view, of turning rules of evidence "upside down". Law enforcers normally have to prove an individual is guilty to seize their property, but with money laundering laws money can be confiscated and it is up to the individual to prove that the source of funds is legitimate to get the money back.[1] This makes it much easier for law enforcement agencies and provides for much lower burdens of proof. However, this process has been abused by some law enforcement agencies to take and keep money without strong evidence of related criminal activity, to be used to supplement their own budgets.[citation needed]

The 11 September attacks in 2001, which led to the Patriot Act in the U.S. and similar legislation worldwide, led to a new emphasis on money laundering laws to combat terrorism financing.[2] The Group of Seven (G7) nations used the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering to put pressure on governments around the world to increase surveillance and monitoring of financial transactions and share this information between countries. Starting in 2002, governments around the world upgraded money laundering laws and surveillance and monitoring systems of financial transactions. Anti-money laundering regulations have become a much larger burden for financial institutions and enforcement has stepped up significantly.

During 2011–2015 a number of major banks faced ever-increasing fines for breaches of money laundering regulations. This included HSBC, which was fined $1.9 billion in December 2012,[3] and BNP Paribas, which was fined $8.9 billion in July 2014 by the U.S. government.[4] Many countries introduced or strengthened border controls on the amount of cash that can be carried and introduced central transaction reporting systems where all financial institutions have to report all financial transactions electronically. For example, in 2006, Australia set up the AUSTRAC system and required the reporting of all financial transactions.[5]



Money laundering is the conversion or transfer of property; the concealment or disguising of the nature of the proceeds; the acquisition, possession or use of property, knowing that these are derived from criminal acts; the participating in or assisting the movement of funds to make the proceeds appear legitimate.

Money obtained from certain crimes, such as extortion, insider trading, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and illegal gambling is "dirty" and needs to be "cleaned" to appear to have been derived from legal activities, so that banks and other financial institutions will deal with it without suspicion. Money can be laundered by many methods that vary in complexity and sophistication.

Money laundering typically involves three steps: The first involves introducing cash into the financial system by some means ("placement"); the second involves carrying out complex financial transactions to camouflage the illegal source of the cash ("layering"); and finally, acquiring wealth generated from the transactions of the illicit funds ("integration"). Some of these steps may be omitted, depending upon the circumstances. For example, non-cash proceeds that are already in the financial system would not need to be placed.[6]

According to the United States Treasury Department:

Money laundering is the process of making illegally-gained proceeds (i.e., "dirty money") appear legal (i.e., "clean"). Typically, it involves three steps: placement, layering, and integration. First, the illegitimate funds are furtively introduced into the legitimate financial system. Then, the money is moved around to create confusion, sometimes by wiring or transferring through numerous accounts. Finally, it is integrated into the financial system through additional transactions until the "dirty money" appears "clean".[7]


List of methods

Money laundering can take several forms, although most methodologies can be categorized into one of a few types. These include "bank methods, smurfing [also known as structuring], currency exchanges, and double-invoicing".[8]

Digital electronic money

See also: Cryptocurrency and crime

In theory, electronic money should provide as easy a method of transferring value without revealing identity as untracked banknotes, especially wire transfers involving anonymity-protecting numbered bank accounts. In practice, however, the record-keeping capabilities of Internet service providers and other network resource maintainers tend to frustrate that intention. While some cryptocurrencies under recent development have aimed to provide for more possibilities of transaction anonymity for various reasons, the degree to which they succeed — and, in consequence, the degree to which they offer benefits for money laundering efforts — is controversial. Solutions such as ZCash and Monero ― known as privacy coins[28] ― are examples of cryptocurrencies that provide unlinkable anonymity via proofs and/or obfuscation of information (ring signatures).[29] While not suitable for large-scaled crimes, privacy coins like Monero are suitable for laundering money made through small-scaled crimes.[30]

Apart from traditional cryptocurrencies, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) are also commonly used in connection with money laundering activities.[31] NFTs are often used to perform Wash Trading by creating several different wallets for one individual, generating several fictitious sales and consequently selling the respective NFT to a third party.[32] According to a report by Chainalysis these types of wash trades are becoming increasingly popular among money launderers especially due to the largely anonymous nature of transactions on NFT marketplaces.[33][34] Auction platforms for NFT sales may face regulatory pressure to comply with anti-money laundering legislation.[35]

Additionally, cryptocurrency mixers have been increasingly used by cybercriminals over the past decade to launder funds.[36] A mixer blends the cryptocurrencies of many users together to obfuscate the origins and owners of funds, enabling a greater degree of privacy on public blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum.[37] Although not explicitly illegal in many jurisdictions, the legality of mixers is controversial.[38] The use of the mixer Tornado Cash in the laundering of funds by the Lazarus Group led the Office of Foreign Assets Control to sanction it, prompting some users to sue the Treasury Department.[39] Proponents have argued mixers allow users to protect their privacy and that the government lacks the authority to restrict access to decentralized software. In the United States, FinCEN requires mixers to register as money service businesses.[40]

In 2013, Jean-Loup Richet, a research fellow at ESSEC ISIS, surveyed new techniques that cybercriminals were using in a report written for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.[41] A common approach was to use a digital currency exchanger service which converted dollars into a digital currency called Liberty Reserve, and could be sent and received anonymously. The receiver could convert the Liberty Reserve currency back into cash for a small fee. In May 2013, the US authorities shut down Liberty Reserve charging its founder and various others with money laundering.[42]

Another increasingly common way of laundering money is to use online gaming. In a growing number of online games, such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, it is possible to convert money into virtual goods, services, or virtual cash that can later be converted back into money.[27]

To avoid the usage of decentralized digital money such as Bitcoin for the profit of crime and corruption, Australia is planning to strengthen the nation's anti-money laundering laws.[43] The characteristics of Bitcoin—it is completely deterministic, protocol based and can be difficult to censor[citation needed]—make it possible to circumvent national laws using services like Tor to obfuscate transaction origins. Bitcoin relies completely on cryptography, not on a central entity running under a KYC framework. There are several cases in which criminals have cashed out a significant amount of Bitcoin after ransomware attacks, drug dealings, cyber fraud and gunrunning.[44][45] However, many digital currency exchanges are now operating KYC programs under threat of regulation from the jurisdictions they operate in.[46][47]

Reverse money laundering

See also: Hawala and crime

Reverse money laundering is a process that disguises a legitimate source of funds that are to be used for illegal purposes.[48] It is usually perpetrated for the purpose of financing terrorism[49] but can be also used by criminal organizations that have invested in legal businesses and would like to withdraw legitimate funds from official circulation. Unaccounted cash received via disguising financial transactions is not included in official financial reporting and could be used to evade taxes, hand in bribes and pay "under-the-table" salaries.[50] For example, in an affidavit filed on 24 March 2014 in United States District Court, Northern California, San Francisco Division, FBI special agent Emmanuel V. Pascau alleged that several people associated with the Chee Kung Tong organization, and California State Senator Leland Yee, engaged in reverse money laundering activities.

The problem of such fraudulent encashment practices (obnalichka in Russian) has become acute in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. The Eurasian Group on Combating Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism (EAG) reported that the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Turkey, Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Kazakhstan have encountered a substantial shrinkage of tax base and shifting money supply balance in favor of cash. These processes have complicated planning and management of the economy and contributed to the growth of the shadow economy.[51]


Many regulatory and governmental authorities issue estimates each year for the amount of money laundered, either worldwide or within their national economy. In 1996, a spokesperson for the IMF estimated that 2–5% of the worldwide global economy involved laundered money.[52] The Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), an intergovernmental body set up to combat money laundering, stated, "Due to the illegal nature of the transactions, precise statistics are not available and it is therefore impossible to produce a definitive estimate of the amount of money that is globally laundered every year. The FATF therefore does not publish any figures in this regard."[53] Academic commentators have likewise been unable to estimate the volume of money with any degree of assurance.[6] Various estimates of the scale of global money laundering are sometimes repeated often enough to make some people regard them as factual—but no researcher has overcome the inherent difficulty of measuring an actively concealed practice.

Regardless of the difficulty in measurement, the amount of money laundered each year is in the billions of US dollars and poses a significant policy concern for governments.[6] As a result, governments and international bodies have undertaken efforts to deter, prevent, and apprehend money launderers. Financial institutions have likewise undertaken efforts to prevent and detect transactions involving dirty money, both as a result of government requirements and to avoid the reputational risk involved. Issues relating to money laundering have existed as long as there have been large scale criminal enterprises. Modern anti-money laundering laws have developed along with the modern War on Drugs.[54] In more recent times anti-money laundering legislation is seen as adjunct to the financial crime of terrorist financing in that both crimes usually involve the transmission of funds through the financial system (although money laundering relates to where the money has come from, and terrorist financing relating to where the money is going to). Finally people, vessels, organisations and governments can be sanctioned due to international law breaking, war (and of course tit-for-tat sanctions), and still want to move funds into markets where they are persona non grata.

Transaction laundering is a massive and growing problem.[55] Finextra estimated that transaction laundering accounted for over $200 billion in the US in 2017 alone, with over $6 billion of these sales involving illicit goods or services, sold by nearly 335,000 unregistered merchants.[56]

Notable cases

1998 investigation, United States Senate, Contribution Laundering/Third-Party Transfers. Includes investigation of Gandhi Memorial International Foundation.


See also


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