Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

On November 22, 2023, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), in close coordination with the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) Criminal Investigation (“CI”), issued an alert (“Alert”) regarding the COVID-19 Employee Retention Credit (“ERC”). The Alert echoes the FinCEN’s previous Notice on payroll tax evasion and workers’ compensation fraud in the construction sector, which was similarly issued by FinCEN in coordination with IRS CI, which has established itself as one of the primary “consumers” of Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reports filed with FinCEN.

Since 2020, IRS CI has investigated more than $2.8 billion of potentially fraudulent ERC claims. The Alert indicates that ERC fraud occurs when fraudulent claims are filed using shell companies or existing but ineligible businesses to pay for personal expenses upon receipt of the credit. The fraud also occurs when businesses are “duped” into filing for the ERC by a third-party, who often provides the business with misinformation about program qualifications and takes a fee to help the business file a claim for the ERC.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Alert on COVID-19 Employee Retention Tax Credit Fraud

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has issued a notice entitled “FinCEN Calls Attention to Payroll Tax Evasion and Workers’ Compensation Fraud in the Construction Sector” (the “Notice”).  According to the Notice, “state and federal tax authorities [annually] lose hundreds of millions of dollars to these schemes, which are perpetrated by illicit actors primarily through banks and check cashers.”

The Notice describes these combined schemes as follows.  Individuals create a shell company whose sole purpose is to allow construction contractors to avoid paying workers’ compensation premiums as well as state and federal payroll taxes.  The operators of the shell company will take out a minimal workers’ compensation policy and “rent” or sell the policy to construction contractors that employ a much larger number of workers than the policy is designed to cover.  The insurance policy enables the shell company to apply for and receive official business registration status.  The shell company operators will include the business license and tax documents in the package “rented” to the contractors.  This is the insurance fraud aspect.  Although insurance fraud is a state and local crime, it easily can be charged federally through use of the mail and wire fraud statutes.  Mail and wire fraud also can serve as predicate offenses – more precisely, “Specified Unlawful Activities” – underlying federal money laundering charges.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Notice on Payroll Tax Evasion and Workers’ Compensation Fraud in the Construction Industry

As we have blogged repeatedly, there is a close nexus between money laundering and tax crimes.  The frequent connection between the two sets of offenses – and the potentially related methods of combatting them – is a topic that is receiving growing attention.  It is important for many reasons, including the increase in international cooperation and information sharing across countries and law enforcement agencies in regard to both sets of offenses.

We therefore are very pleased to welcome to Money Laundering Watch guest bloggers Emmanuel Mathias and Adrian Wardzynski, who have authored a well-received Working Paper, Leveraging Anti-Money Laundering Measures to Improve Tax Compliance and Help Mobilize Domestic Revenues as part of the International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) publication series (“Working Paper”).

As we will discuss, the Working Paper advocates leveraging anti-money laundering (“AML”) measures to enhance tax compliance, tackle tax crimes, and help mobilize domestic revenues.

Emmanuel Mathias heads the Governance and Anti-Corruption division in the IMF’s Legal Department, where he oversees the IMF’s work on anti-corruption and the rule of law. He also worked extensively on AML issues. Prior to joining the IMF in 2005, Emmanuel served as a researcher in economics, was trained as a customs special agent, and worked for the French Financial Intelligence Unit. Emmanuel holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Paris – Pantheon Sorbonne. He graduated from the Institute of political studies of Strasbourg, and was admitted to the French national school of administration.

Adrian Wardzynski works in the Financial Integrity division in the IMF’s Legal Department. In his role as a Counsel he focuses on financial integrity issues relating to money laundering, tax crimes, and corruption. Before joining the IMF in 2021, Adrian was a Tax Policy Advisor at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He also worked on taxation of multinational enterprises and financial institutions in the private sector and Switzerland’s State Secretariat for International Finance. Adrian holds an LL.M. in Taxation from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

The IMF is a global organization which works to achieve sustainable growth and prosperity for all of its 190 member countries. It does so by supporting economic policies that promote financial stability and monetary cooperation, which are essential to increase productivity, job creation, and economic well-being To fulfill these missions, IMF member countries work collaboratively with each other and with other international bodies.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Mr. Mathias and Mr. Wardzynski, in their personal capacities, respond to questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Report. We hope you enjoy this discussion of this important topic. – Peter Hardy and Siana Danch.

Continue Reading  Leveraging AML Measures to Combat Tax Crimes. A Guest Blog.

Last week, FinCEN “communicated,” so to speak, to private industry, law enforcement, regulators, and legislators in three very different ways:  through a FY 2022 Year In Review infographic; a first-of-its kind enforcement action against a trust company; and in statements before the U.S. House of Representatives.  This post summarizes each of these developments, which are unified by the motif of FinCEN asserting that it has an increasing role in protecting the U.S. financial system against money laundering, terrorist financing and other illicit activity; providing critical data and analytical support to law enforcement agencies pursuing these goals; and simultaneously policing and trying to collaborate with private industry regarding these goals.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Round Up:  FY 2022 in Review; First AML Enforcement Against a Trust Company; and Comments to Congress

How effective is the current framework for filing Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs?  The AML Act mandates that federal law enforcement agencies provide statistics to assist Congress, regulators, and financial institutions answer this question.  Specifically, it requires the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to annually produce a report to the Secretary of the Treasury containing statistics, metrics and other information on the use of Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reports.  It further requires the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), to the extent possible, to periodically disclose to financial institutions summary information on SARs that proved useful to law enforcement; it also requires FinCEN to review SARs and publish information on threat patterns and trends.

Yet, on August 25, 2022, the United States Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) published a report, Action Needed to Improve DOJ Statistics on Use of Reports on Suspicious Financial Transactions, describing how the DOJ has not fulfilled that statutory mandate.  The GAO’s report sets forth two recommendations: (1) the DOJ should include data on the use of BSA reports in its ongoing agency-wide efforts to improve data collection; and (2) involve its Chief Information Officer and Statistical Official in the design of its annual BSA statistical report. 

Arguably, the most eye-catching observation of the report is that FinCEN itself “cannot currently provide comprehensive feedback on the impact of BSA reports [to the DOJ] because agencies do not provide FinCEN with comprehensive data on their use of those reports or the effect they had.”  Accordingly, and despite ongoing calls for FinCEN to provide meaningful feedback (now, a statutory requirement under the AML Act), FinCEN “cannot connect their data on report searches to the impact of those reports on case outcomes.”

Continue Reading  GAO Report: DOJ Cannot Provide Meaningful Feedback on SAR Use

Treasury Offers Something for Everyone to Comply With: Trades and Businesses, Banks, Crypto Exchangers and Individuals

On May 21, 2021, the U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) released its American Families Plan Tax Compliance Agenda (“Agenda”), a comprehensive set of initiatives to increase tax compliance and close the “tax gap” between the amount taxpayers owe and the amount that is actually paid.  While part of the $80 billion plan calls for providing Treasury and specifically the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) with additional resources to combat tax evasion, the Agenda also proposes revisions to current regulations and leveraging existing infrastructure to “shed light on previously opaque income sources;” namely, cryptocurrency.  Although the sweeping Agenda obviously focuses on tax compliance, it also has related consequences for Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance in areas where the BSA and the tax code overlap as to cryptocurrency.

The Agenda also represents the latest in a string of initiatives by the U.S. government regarding the increasing regulation of the use of cryptocurrency, whether by direct users, exchangers of cryptocurrency, or financial institutions with customers dealing in cryptocurrency.  The Agenda represents both an acknowledgement by the U.S. Treasury that cryptocurrency use has become “normalized,” coupled with a clear signal that its use will be highly scrutinized and regulated.
Continue Reading  As Treasury Eyes Crypto in Tax Compliance Agenda, Reporting Obligations May Increase – Including a Crypto “Form 8300” for Transactions over $10K

In Related Case, Federal Court Holds that Bitcoin-to-Bitcoin “Tumbler” Can Represent “Money Transmission”

On April 27, IRS CI and FBI Special Agents arrested Roman Sterlingov, a dual citizen of Russia and Sweden, for his alleged role as the founder and operator of Bitcoin Fog, a cryptocurrency “tumbler” or “mixer” aimed at concealing the source of funds. The criminal complaint and accompanying Statement of Facts, filed in the District of Columbia, alleges that over the course of 10 years, Bitcoin Fog moved more than 1.2 million bitcoin, valued (at the time of the transactions) at about $335 million. According to the government’s press release, “[t]he bulk of this cryptocurrency came from darknet marketplaces and was tied to illegal narcotics, computer fraud and abuse activities, and identity theft.”

Sterlingov allegedly founded the site while promoting it under the pseudonym Akemashite Omedetou, a Japanese phrase that means “Happy New Year.” In a post on an online Bitcoin forum, Omedetou advertised that Bitcoin Fog “[mixes] up your bitcoins in our own pool with other users,” and “can eliminate any chance of finding your payments and making it impossible to prove any connection between a deposit and a withdraw inside our service.”

Ironically, Sterlingov was identified by investigators using the very same sort of tracing that Bitcoin Fog was meant to forestall. The Statement of Facts outlines in extensive detail how Sterlingov allegedly paid for Bitcoin Fog’s domain using a now-defunct digital currency; it goes on to show a series of transactions recorded to the blockchain that identifies Sterlingov’s purchase of that currency with bitcoin. Based on tracing those financial transactions, investigators were able to identify Sterlingov’s home address and phone number, together with a Google account that hosts a document that describes how to obscure bitcoin payments – that document mirrors closely the methods Sterlingov allegedly employed to purchase the Bitcoin Fog domain.

In addition to thanking various domestic law enforcement agencies, the government’s press release highlights the international nature of the investigation by also thanking Europol and Swedish and Romanian law enforcement agencies. The criminal complaint against Sterlingov is therefore another example of IRC-CI pursuing its simultaneous goals of fighting crypto-related crime and collaborating with foreign law enforcement officials in order to do so.

Notably, this is the second case brought by the Department of Justice, Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, targeting virtual currency mixer operations. In United States v. Harmon, a case also being prosecuted in the District of Columbia, the defendant has similarly been charged for his alleged role in operating Helix, a bitcoin mixer that sent more than $300 million in bitcoin to designated recipients.
Continue Reading  DOJ Again Charges Crypto “Mixer” Under the BSA and District of Columbia’s Money Transmitters Act

In its most recent Marijuana Banking Update, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) stated that the decline in the number of banks and credit unions actively banking marijuana-related businesses (MRBs) in the United States “appears to have leveled off.”  As of December 31, 2020, there were 684 banks and credit unions banking MRBs.  That

Government Suggests that Unusual Pleas are Just the Tip of an Iceberg

Chinese law generally prohibits its citizens from converting more than $50,000 in Chinese yuan into foreign currency in a year.  On Monday, two men living in Las Vegas pleaded guilty in federal district court in the Southern District of California to operating an unlicensed money transmitter business, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960.  Allegedly, they ran a scheme in which they helped clients circumvent this Chinese law — as well as the anti-money laundering programs of U.S. financial institutions — by converting electronic funds in China into hard currency in the United States, which the clients then used to gamble at casinos.

The case reflects the continuing ingenuity employed by individuals to use expanding technologies to circumvent currency controls and money laundering laws.  The case is also interesting because the defendants allegedly ran their scheme with the help of insiders at the casinos, who provided assistance in exchange for a cut of the cash.
Continue Reading  Guilty Pleas Highlight Illicit Funneling of Chinese Cash to Casinos