About three years ago, a so-called crypto-anarchist, deep into libertarianism, hired me to write a book that included content railing against government anti-money laundering regulations. As he saw it, there is essentially nothing wrong with financially supporting terrorist organizations, smuggling drugs or other contraband items. (Hell, there was nothing wrong with terrorism to him; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter). People can do what they want as long as they don’t harm others. Drugs and prostitutes (for instance) delight individuals. And, therefore, the government, which, by the way, does a lousy job of literally minding its own business should focus on “minding its own business”.
Five years later and knowing more on money laundering, I think large-scale smuggling and certainly funding terrorists may have more negative social and economic ramifications than my well-meaning friend opined. This is partly because unrequited criminal laundering turns us into a criminal society – after all why work ethically when we can make far more money in illicit activities. Above all, successful money laundering means more drugs on the streets, more drug-related crime, more fraud, more corporate embezzling, and more terrorism, among a host of other social ills.
What is money laundering?
Money laundering, at its simplest, is the act of trying to make money that comes from nefarious Source A look like it comes from “clean” Source B. If caught, the perpetrator can’t use that money, since law enforcement would seize it. Source A involves funding ISIS, smuggling cocaine, engaging in corrupt political businesses, or benefiting from fraudulent business schemes, as examples.
If I were involved in any of these activities and would want to retain my stash, I’d be advised to go through the following three steps:
- Placement – Find a place to stash my money. If I wire the trove to my banks Capital One or Charles Schwab, they’d have to tell the government I’m suddenly depositing millions in checks. So I need to find a resilient hiding place.
- Layering – Money launderers can teach me all sort of schemes like wiring money between different accounts in different names in different countries, or purchasing high-value items (boats, houses, cars, diamonds) to change the form of my money. I can also change my money’s currency – and this is where cryptocurrency comes in. So, I can change my dirty dollars into Bitcoin and then again into Monero or Dash to better hide its source – now there’s a way to evade the cops!
- Integration – At this point, my money re-enters mainstream society as though it comes from a legitimate source. I’ve strategized in such a way that my startling fortune is innocuous and can slip under the radar.
The government’s response to money-laundering
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 join forces in catching money-launderers like me. State and local police investigate cases under their jurisdiction. On the international stage (and when it comes to blockchain), organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) send in their troops. The last has 33 member states and organizations, as of 2018.
Cops combine legislation with law enforcement. In the United States, legislative acts include:
- The Bank Secrecy Act (1970) – Financial institutions have to report all single transactions above $10,000 and multiple transactions totaling more than $10,000 to or from a single account in one day. When it comes to the blockchain industry, this includes money service businesses (MSB), too. Bankers who violate this rule can serve up to 10 years in prison.
- The 1986 Money Laundering Control Act – Any aspect of money laundering is a crime punishable by fines or jail.
- The 1994 Money Laundering Suppression Act – Banks have to establish their own money-laundering task forces to weed out suspicious activity in their institutions. When it comes to blockchain-based financial institutions, customer due diligence (CDD) rules are no different.
In truth, it’s a perpetual chase of cops vs. robbers, with the robbers mostly slipping through even as cops set the traps.
How do AML rules impact ICOs?
ICOs, also known as token sales, can fall foul of anti-money laundering regulations with their digital tokens. While “utility tokens” that only give investors access to the startup’s features are ok, it is the “security tokens” that may offer investors equity or some form of an investment return that are problematic.
This is where a growing number of ICOs interest themselves in Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulations for reasons that include the following:
- Establish credibility with banks – After all, banks don’t want to trip up with organizations like FinCen, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, that snoops into whether financial institutions are adhering to KYC.
- Long-term legitimacy – It’s good for your bottom line. You don’t want the government to bust your booty as happened in 2014 with Mt. Gox, the largest Bitcoin exchange, after the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seized suspicious money from its U.S. subsidiary account.
- Improved public perception – You appear more legitimate. You’re more likely to interest investors. The Dutch Authority for the Financial Markets (AFM), for one, warns consumers to avoid ICOs:
“Due to their unregulated status and the anonymous nature of the transactions involved, ICOs are attractive for the laundering of money obtained by criminal means. .. Because of these risks, there is a strong possibility that investors will lose their entire investment.”
With your compliance to KYC/ AML rules, you prove the AFM wrong.
4. Expanded reach – You’re more likely to attract investors in countries with rigid KYC/AML regulations like US, UK and Canada.
5. Avoid Regulatory Fines – There have been cases of regulatory bodies fining or suffocating ICOs that smell suspicious. With the Mt. Gox case, more than 3,000 customers lost some, or all, of their investments. You really don’t want that happening to you! AML in practice?
Our most recent guide to all there’s to “KYC: A Practical Guide for Blockchain Entrepreneur and Investor” gives you the overall picture.
Really, it reduces to three steps:
- Identify and do background checks on depositors.
- Report all suspicious activity. (For example, if a background check revealed that depositor A works in an oil rig, and he deposits $2,000 every two weeks, a series of ten $9,000 deposits over two weeks should worry you.)
- Build an internal task-force to identify laundering clues.
The rest is up to you.