Money Launderering Basics

 The most common types of criminals who need to launder money are drug traffickers, embezzlers, corrupt politicians and public officials, mobsters, terrorists and con artists. Drug traffickers are in serious need of good laundering systems because they deal almost exclusively in cash, which causes all sorts of logistics problems. Not only does cash draw the attention of law-enforcement officials, but it's also really heavy. Cocaine that's worth $1 million on the street weighs about 44 pounds (20 kg), while a stash of U.S. dollars worth $1 million weighs about 256 pounds (116 kg).

The basic money laundering process has three steps:

  1. Placement - At this stage, the launderer inserts the dirty money into a legitimate financial institution. This is often in the form of cash bank deposits. This is the riskiest stage of the laundering process because large amounts of cash are pretty conspicuous, and banks are required to report high-value transactions.
  2. Layering - Layering involves sending the money through various financial transactions to change its form and make it difficult to follow. Layering may consist of several bank-to-bank transfers, wire transfers between different accounts in different names in different countries, making deposits and withdrawals to continually vary the amount of money in the accounts, changing the money's currency, and purchasing high-value items (boats, houses, cars, diamonds) to change the form of the money. This is the most complex step in any laundering scheme, and it's all about making the original dirty money as hard to trace as possible.
  3. Integration - At the integration stage, the money re-enters the mainstream economy in legitimate-looking form -- it appears to come from a legal transaction. This may involve a final bank transfer into the account of a local business in which the launderer is "investing" in exchange for a cut of the profits, the sale of a yacht bought during the layering stage or the purchase of a $10 million screwdriver from a company owned by the launderer. At this point, the criminal can use the money without getting caught. It's very difficult to catch a launderer during the integration stage if there is no documentation during the previous stages.






Money laundering is a crucial step in the success of drug trafficking and terrorist activities, not to mention white collar crime, and there are countless organizations trying to get a handle on the problem. In the United States, the Department of Justice, the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency all have divisions investigating money laundering and the underlying financial structures that make it work. State and local police also investigate cases that fall under their jurisdiction. Because global financial systems play a major role in most high-level laundering schemes, the international community is fighting money laundering through various means, including the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), which as of 2005 has 33 member states and organizations. The United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also have anti-money-laundering divisions.

  • ­­­­­Structuring deposits
    Also known as smurfing, this method entails breaking up large amounts of money into smaller, less-suspicious amounts. In the United States, this smaller amount has to be below $10,000 -- the dollar amount at which U.S. banks have to report the transaction to the government. The money is then deposited into one or more bank accounts either by multiple people (smurfs) or by a single person over an extended period of time.
  • Overseas banks
    Money launderers often send money through various "offshore accounts" in countries that have bank secrecy laws, meaning that for all intents and purposes, these countries allow anonymous banking. A complex scheme can involve hundreds of bank transfers to and from offshore banks. According to the International Monetary Fund, "major offshore centers" include the Bahamas, Bahrain, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Antilles, Panama and Singapore.
  • Underground/alternative banking
    Some countries in Asia have well-established, legal alternative banking systems that allow for undocumented deposits, withdrawals and transfers. These are trust-based systems, often with ancient roots, that leave no paper trail and operate outside of government control. This includes the hawala system in Pakistan and India and the fie chen system in China.
  • Shell companies
    These are fake companies that exist for no other reason than to launder money. They take in dirty money as "payment" for supposed goods or services but actually provide no goods or services; they simply create the appearance of legitimate transactions through fake invoices and balance sheets.
  • Investing in legitimate businesses
    Launderers sometimes place dirty money in otherwise legitimate businesses to clean it. They may use large businesses like brokerage firms or casinos that deal in so much money it's easy for the dirty stuff to blend in, or they may use small, cash-intensive businesses like bars, car washes, strip clubs or check-cashing stores. These businesses may be "front companies" that actually do provide a good or service but whose real purpose is to clean the launderer's money. This method typically works in one of two ways: The launderer can combine his dirty money with the company's clean revenues -- in this case, the company reports higher revenues from its legitimate business than it's really earning; or the launderer can simply hide his dirty money in the company's legitimate bank accounts in the hopes that authorities won't compare the bank balance to the company's financial statements.

­Most money-laundering schemes involve some combination of these methods, although the Black Market Peso Exchange is pretty much a one-stop-shopping system once someone smuggles the cash to the peso broker. The variety of tools available to launderers makes this a difficult crime to stop, but authorities do catch the bad guys every now and then. In the next section, we'll take a look at two busted money-laundering operations.

There are between 700,000 and one million electronic funds transfers undertaken world-wide every day. The vast majority of these are legitimate business to business, business to person, person to person, government to business or government to person (and all visa versa) transactions. But mixed into this plethora of legitimate activity are the funds derived from the proceeds of crime.

These electronic transfers are part of the international washing machine that takes in dirty money (the proceeds of crime) in one place and spins out apparently genuine monetary transactions for value at another location.

Do the launderers have the upper hand? Undoubtedly!  The problem for  the money launders (a “crim”[criminal] by any other name) is that so successful have they been at their “craft” that international terrorist organisations have started to use the techniques and channels used to launder proceeds of crime, drawing the unwanted attention of international law enforcement.

Cheating on your taxes through black market trading it appears is one thing; using that same cheat system to kill, maim and injure hundreds of thousands around the world is clearly another.

Governments around the world have united to stamp out the processes of organised crime that permit and facilitate money laundering through the use of complex software applications, physical restrictions on transportation of cash and reporting of suspicious transactions by everyone from banks to trade professionals. 

In the experience of members of the Financial Intelligence Group, money laundering in New Zealand has revolved around two distinct areas; proceeds of street crime (usually drug money) and white collar crime (usually fraud but also tax evasion).

While the process of laundering is simple in theory there are critical points that are vulnerable to detection and investigation. Through careful analysis of transactions, the persons involved and the activities in which they have engaged our Financial Investigators trace proceeds of crime to detect the perpetrators of the schemes, the methods they use and to trace the proceeds of that crime with a view, where possible, to recovery.