In common parlance, money laundering is the process of taking illegally-gained, “dirty” money and making it appear legal or “clean.”
Who needs to wash money? A classic case is the drug dealer who’s sitting on a pile of cash but can’t very well explain where he got it from. The same concept, however, applies to other unlawful activity like financial frauds, computer crimes, alien smuggling, arms trafficking, public corruption, and illegal gambling.
How does one wash money? Although there are many ways to skin this cat, the process generally involves three steps:
- Introducing the dirty money into the financial system somehow (e.g. by making a deposit, buying an asset, making a loan, or funding an investment);
- Moving the money around through additional transfers or transactions to create confusion and make it harder to identify the original source of the funds; and
- Disbursing the money back to the launderer through a final set of seemingly legitimate transactions.
Money-laundering laws, however, apply to a broader range of conduct than that. They don’t just apply when people move around dirty money to disguise its source, nature, control, ownership, or location. They also apply when people move dirty money to promote the unlawful activity (e.g. by reinvesting the proceeds into it); to evade taxes; or to avoid currency-reporting requirements. See generally 18 U.S.C. § 1956; 31 U.S.C. §§ 5316, 5324, & 5332. They even apply when people knowingly engage (or attempt to engage) in any transaction involving more than $10,000 in dirty money, regardless of intent. 18 U.S.C. § 1957. And they apply to schemes to mask the source of legal money that is intended to support terrorism.
Below are a few of the important money-laundering laws we’ve enacted and their highlights.
Bank Secrecy Act (1970)
- Required banks to keep adequate books and records to identify money flows and laundering.
- Required banks to report cash transactions over $10,000 through a Currency Transaction Report (or CTR).
Money Laundering Control Act (1986)
- Made money laundering a federal crime.
- Prohibited the structuring of transactions to evade a CTR filing.
- Introduced civil and criminal forfeiture for violations of the Bank Secrecy Act.
Annunzio-Wylie Anti-Money Laundering Act (1992)
- Required banks to file suspicious activity reports (or SARs) if they know, suspect, or have reason to know or suspect that a transaction involves criminal activity.
Money Laundering Suppression Act (1994)
- Regulated “money services businesses” (MSBs) that convert or transmit money (like Western Union, Check ‘n Go, or even a convenience store that issues money orders).
- Criminalized the operation of an unregistered MSB. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 1960.
Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Restrict, Intercept, and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act (2001)
- Criminalized the financing of terrorism.
- Facilitated government access to bank records.
- Increased the civil and criminal penalties for money laundering.