Case Sheds Light on Latest Methods to Evade Detection: “Peeling” Chains

On March 2, the U.S. government sanctioned and indicted two Chinese nationals for helping North Korea launder nearly $100 million in stolen cryptocurrency. The indictment, filed in the District of Columbia, charges the defendants with conspiring to commit money laundering transactions designed to both “promote” and “conceal” the underlying crimes of wire fraud (the theft of the cryptocurrency via hacking) and operating as an unlicensed money transmitter — the latter of which is also charged in the indictment as an additional count.

According to the related and detailed civil forfeiture complaint, these funds were only a portion of those stolen in 2018 by state-sponsored hackers for North Korea from a South Korean exchange. These actions, notable in several respects, provide a glimpse at the latest methods of laundering cryptocurrency.

Anyone attempting to launder illicit cryptocurrency faces at least two big challenges. First, due to rigid know-your-customer rules, one cannot simply deposit large amounts of funds at an exchange without raising red flags. Second, because all cryptocurrency transactions are recorded on a blockchain, they can be traced.

To clear these hurdles, the complaint alleges that North Korean hackers used “peeling chains.” In a peeling chain, a single address begins with a relatively large amount of cryptocurrency. A smaller amount is then “peeled” off this larger amount, creating a transaction in which a small amount is transferred to one address, and the remainder is transferred to a one-time change address. This process is repeated – potentially hundreds or thousands of times – until the larger amount is pared down, at which point the amount remaining in the address might be aggregated with other such addresses to again yield a large amount in a single address, and the peeling process goes on.
Continue Reading Two Chinese Nationals Charged with Money Laundering Over $100 Million in Cryptocurrency for North Korea

First in a Two-Post Series

The U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) has issued its 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing (“2020 Strategy”). This document sets forth the key priorities of the U.S. government regarding enforcement of the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”), and the furthering of the government’s Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) goals in general. It is lengthy document addressing numerous issues – albeit in a relatively high-level fashion in regards to any specific issue.

In this post, we will summarize the findings and recommendations of the 2020 Strategy, and will highlight some topics this blog has followed closely – including calls for: increased transparency into beneficial ownership; strengthening international regulation and coordination, and modernization of the AML/BSA regime. Our next post will focus on the 2020 Strategy as it relates to combating money laundering relating to real estate transactions and “gatekeeper” professions, such as lawyers, real estate professionals and other financial professionals, including broker-dealers.

The 2020 Strategy also focuses on several other important issues which we will not discuss in this limited blog series, but on which we certainly have blogged before, including the role of money laundering in international trade, casinos, money services businesses and digital assets.
Continue Reading Treasury Department’s 2020 National Illicit Finance Strategy: Aspirations for BSA/AML Modernization and the Combatting of Key Threats

Last Thursday, FinCEN Deputy Director Jamal El-Hindi appeared at the 20th annual Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Financial Crimes Conference hosted by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) in New York City. His prepared remarks covered three main topics at the intersection of the securities industry and FinCEN’s enforcement goals: (i) AML compliance trends and current challenges; (ii) the value of Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) filing data; and (iii) the current regulatory landscape.

El-Hindi not surprisingly stressed transparency and information sharing, the value of BSA reporting data, and the need for legislation regarding the collection of beneficial ownership at the corporate formation stage. El-Hindi also suggested – perhaps without the complete agreement of his audience – that regulators tend to under-regulate, rather than over-regulate. He stated: “But in an area such as ours where we have developed a strong partnership with industry and where we believe that you are just as vested in our mission to thwart bad actors as we are, it is important for us to use our authorities fully.”

His remarks are particularly relevant given the 2020 Examination Priorities recently issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), which states that the OCIE will prioritize examining broker-dealers and investment companies “for compliance with their AML obligations in order to assess, among other things, whether firms have established appropriate customer identification programs and whether they are satisfying their SAR filing obligations, conducting due diligence on customers, complying with beneficial ownership requirements, and conducting robust and timely independent tests of their AML programs.”
Continue Reading FinCEN Stresses Transparency, BSA Filing Data, and Perils of “Under- Regulating” to Securities Industry

ABA Tax Fraud Panel to Discuss IRS CI and Crypto Criminals

The Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation (IRS CI) has made it clear that it is focusing on the abuse of digital currencies to further tax evasion, money laundering, and other offenses. IRS-CI also has made it clear that this is an international effort, and that it is trying to partner with law enforcement agencies across the globe in order to coordinate and share investigative leads.

This is a hot topic, and we are honored that Ballard Spahr will be moderating a panel on these very same issues, at the ABA’s annual Tax Fraud/Tax Controversy Conference in Las Vegas on December 12, entitled Charging Cryptocurrency Violations—Tax Crimes or Money Laundering.  We are pleased to be joined by our wonderful panelists, Evan J. Davis, Betty J. Williams, and Ian M. Comiskey.  This is a unique conference, and we invite you to attend if you are interested in the fascinating cross-section of tax evasion and money laundering.

This blog will discuss the recent efforts by IRS-CI to “up its game” in investigating cross-border offenses committed through cryptocurrency, such as its participation in the international Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement task force. We then will discuss a recent high-profile case which exemplifies these two goals of fighting crypto-related crime and collaborating with foreign law enforcement officials to do so: the notorious “Welcome to Video” case, which led to a global takedown of a darkweb child pornography website, its administrator, and its customers. The Welcome to Video investigation, led by IRS-CI, also illustrates a key point we will discuss at the ABA conference: that cryptocurrency is only “pseudo-anonymous,” and that its protections can yield to a determined combination of modern digital forensics and old-fashioned investigative techniques.
Continue Reading IRS CI Highlights International Efforts to Tackle Cryptocurrency Abuse, Money Laundering and Tax Evasion

Leaders of FinCEN, CFTC and SEC Attempt an Intricate Dance of Competing Oversight of Virtual Currency

On October 11, the leaders of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a “Joint Statement on Acitivites Involving Digital Assets” in order to “remind persons engaged in activities involving digital assets of their anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).”  The regulation of cryptocurrency has been a constant topic of this blog.
Continue Reading Joint Statement on Digital Assets Highlights AML Regulatory Overlap

Last Wednesday, FinCEN Deputy Director Jamal El-Hindi appeared at the annual conference of the Money Transmitter Regulators Association and delivered prepared remarks. The topics of his address covered three issues of continuing interest: (i) innovation and reform with respect to implementation of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA); (ii) FinCEN supervision of non-banking financial institutions; and (iii) maintaining a strong culture of compliance.
Continue Reading FinCEN Deputy Director Stresses Technological Innovation, Virtual Currency Enforcement and the U.S. Culture of Compliance

Today we are very pleased to welcome guest bloggers Gretta Fenner and Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska of the Basel Institute on Governance (“Basel Institute”). The Basel Institute recently issued its Basel AML Index for 2019. As they explain below, this data-rich and fascinating Index, on which we blogged last year, is one of several online tools developed by the Basel Institute to help both public- and private-sector practitioners tackle financial crime.  The Index is a research-based ranking that assesses countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing.

Established in 2003, the Basel Institute is a not-for-profit Swiss foundation dedicated to working with public and private partners around the world to prevent and combat corruption, and is an Associated Institute of the University of Basel. The Basel Institute’s work involves action, advice and research on issues including anti-corruption collective action, asset recovery, corporate governance and compliance, and more.

Gretta Fenner is the Managing Director of the Basel Institute, where she also holds the position of Director of the Institute’s International Centre for Asset Recovery. She is a political scientist by training and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Otto-Suhr-Institute at the Free University Berlin, Germany, and the Paris Institute for Political Science (Sciences Po), France. She also holds an MBA from the Curtin University Graduate School of Business, Australia.

Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska is Project Manager for the Basel AML Index at the Basel Institute. A political scientist, she holds a PhD in Political Science from the National Academy of Science in Ukraine, a master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich as well as a master’s degree in Political Science from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. Before joining the Basel Institute, Dr. Boguslavska worked at Chatham House in London as an Academy Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program.

This blog post takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Ms. Fenner and Dr. Boguslavska respond to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Basel AML Index 2019. We hope you enjoy this discussion of global money laundering risks — which addresses AML compliance vs. actual effectiveness, kleptocracy, transparency, de-risking, and more. –Peter Hardy
Continue Reading What the Basel AML Index Reveals About Global Money Laundering Risks

On August 21, 2019, FinCEN issued an advisory (the “Advisory”) alerting financial institutions to various financial schemes and mechanisms employed by fentanyl and synthetic opioid traffickers to facilitate the illegal fentanyl trade and launder its proceeds.

As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), “fentanyl is a synthetic (man-made) opioid 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent that morphine.” In 2017, more than 28,000 deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioid occurred in the United States. As noted in the Advisory, fentanyl traffics in the United States from two principal sources: from China by U.S. individuals for personal consumption or domestic distribution or from Mexico by transnational criminal organizations (“TCOs”) and other criminal networks. In turn, these trades are funded through a number of mechanisms, including: purchases from a foreign source made using money servICES businesses (“MSBs”), bank transfers or online payment processors; purchases from a foreign source made using convertible virtual currency (“CVC”); purchases from a domestic source made using MSBs, online payment processors, CVC or person-to-person cash sales.

Recognizing fentanyl traffickers’ modus operandi is critical to detecting and preventing these illicit transactions. Thus, the Advisory provides detailed illustrations of each of the above-identified forms of transaction in order to assist financial institutions to detect and prevent facilitating fentanyl trafficking.
Continue Reading FinCEN Advisory Highlights Money Laundering Risks Related to Fentanyl Trafficking

On June 21, 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”), a multi-national, inter-governmental body established in 1989 “to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system,” issued its Guidance for a Risk-Based Approach to Virtual Assets and Virtual Asset Service Providers (the “Guidance”), i.e. virtual currency and virtual currency platforms.

Although the standards adopted by FATF and recommended to member countries were telegraphed months prior to issuance of the Guidance, it nevertheless sent shockwaves through the virtual currency market due to FATF’s adoption of standards many call onerous and others call impossible to meet. Notwithstanding this backlash, at a meeting of members of the Group of Twenty (“G20”) held in Osaka, Japan on June 28-29, 2019, the G20 nations declared they “reaffirm [their] commitment to applying the recently amended FATF Standards to virtual assets and related providers for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism.” Thus, member nations will begin the process of crafting regulations intended to carry out the FATF recommendations.
Continue Reading Financial Action Task Force Drops the Regulatory Hammer on Virtual Currency

Second Post in a Two-Post Series on the ILLICIT CASH Act

A discussion draft of legislation recently introduced in the Senate, the Improving Laundering Laws and Increasing Comprehensive Information Tracking of Criminal Activity in Shell Holdings (ILLICIT CASH) Act (the “Act”), seeks to modernize federal anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) laws. The Act’s bipartisan drafters assert that the “US AML-CFT laws have not kept pace with the growing exploitation of the global financial system to facilitate criminal activities.” The proposed legislation – which is 102 pages long – would update and expand the tools available to regulators and law enforcement and overhaul domestic AML-CFT policies.

In part one of this series, we blogged about the Act’s proposed new reporting requirements for beneficial ownership information. This post focuses on the Act’s many other proposals for improving the resources available to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and facilitating increased communication between law enforcement, regulators and financial institutions, including provisions regarding “no action” letters by FinCEN and “keep open” letters sent by law enforcement to financial institutions.
Continue Reading Proposed AML Reforms Aim to Enhance and Modernize AML/CFT Enforcement