Last week, online currency exchange, Liberty Reserve, was shut down, several individuals were arrested and an indictment was filed by the United States Justice Department in New York. filed and indictment accusing six individuals of, among several other things, money laundering. Media outlets all over keep throwing out that term but how exactly does money laundering happen?
In the United States, money that is earned, whether by legal or illegal means, is subject to taxation. Al Capone went to jail, not for the many (as I gather from watching Boardwalk Empire) people he killed and his unlawful business ventures but for tax evasion. When the government sees you spending money and you do not give them a reasonable reason for your having that money, they will work hard to find out just where your money is coming from. However, if they find out that this money comes from illegal sources, they can arrest and prosecute you for your unlawful activities. This is where money laundering comes in. People who make money via illegal methods, find ways to make their money look clean, as though it came from lawful sources. How does this happen?
- The first step in money laundering is referred to as placement. At this stage, money is put into the financial system. This can be risky as US banks are required to report large cash deposits, and wires and checks contain the payer’s information and are, therefore, quite traceable. This is where Liberty Reserve was very handy. First of all, the only honest information Liberty Reserve required from an account holder was an email address. Although they requested a name and birth date, none of that information was verified. This gave the account holders anonymity. Also, Liberty Reserve did not accept money directly from users. Instead, users took their money to approved exchangers who then issued LR currency, Liberty Reserve’s currency. These exchangers were located in countries with little or no oversight over their financial systems, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, so questions were not asked about where the money came from. This LR currency was then deposited into the users’ Liberty Reserve accounts with no clear path to where the money originally came from.
- The second step in money laundering is layering. During this phase, money is moved around, through many different sources, in an attempt to make the money difficult to trace. Under ordinary circumstances this involves moving funds from one bank account to another, generally in different countries and in varying amounts, buying expensive items and then selling them and changing money from one currency to another. The goal is to make the money’s path as complicated and difficult to trace as possible. Liberty Reserve made this relatively simple. Money going into a Liberty Reserve account holder’s account was already pretty anonymous and difficult to trace. Funds could then be moved, as LR currency, between various anonymous Liberty Reserve accounts. The sources of the funds became near, if not totally, impossible to trace, without having to go through the complications of multiple bank transfers through different countries and bank accounts.
- The final step in money laundering is integration. Here, the money re-enters the economy, disguised as coming from a legitimate source. The funds are transferred into a business that is probably a front for the illegal business but now that its origin has been disguised, it appears to be coming from a legal source. In the case of Liberty Reserve, the LR currency was transferred to money exchangers who converted the LR currency back to US dollars and then moved that money to wherever it was the Liberty Reserve account holder requested.
It is pretty clear just how handy Liberty Reserve was to those involved in illegal business and wanting to launder money so that it looked clean. By removing identification and making money transactions anonymous, placement and layering of dirty money a far less complicated endeavor than it tends to be. It is not surprising that Liberty Reserve had over a million users, 200,000 of which were in the United States, and that over $6 billion went through its system.