Saturday, March 27, 2010

Drugs, Terrorism and Shadow Banking

By Bernd Debusmann
The Great Debate - Reuters
Friday, March 26, 2010

The trouble with moving big amounts of cash, from a criminal’s point of view, is threefold. It’s bulky, it’s heavy and it smells.

A stash of $1 million in mixed bills weighs around 100 pounds (50 kilos). Specially-trained dogs can sniff out bulk cash in a heartbeat.

All of which helps to explain why drug cartels and financiers of terrorism appear to have been making increasing use of what FBI chief Robert Mueller calls a shadow banking system.

Its features include a legal loophole that allows money launderers to get around the requirement that cash or “monetary instruments” (share certificates, travellers’ cheques, money orders etc.) in excess of $10,000 must be declared on entering or leaving the United States.

It is, however, perfectly legal to carry, say, $50,000 embedded in the magnetic stripes of so-called pre-paid stored-value cards.

They look like a credit or debit card but are not linked to a bank account, can in many cases be loaded anonymously, are not “monetary instruments” under U.S. law, and were labelled “the ideal instrument for large-scale drug trafficking and money-laundering operations” in a 2006 analysis by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

It predicted that drug traffickers, narco-terrorists and other criminals would increasingly rely on stored-value cards — “superior to established methods of money laundering” — because they could be used without fear of documentation, identification, law enforcement suspicion or seizure.

In other words, a shot in the arm of the global money laundering industry, an illicit enterprise that accounts for between 2 and 5 percent of the world’s GDP, according to an estimate by the International Monetary Fund. The Center’s dark warnings did little to curb the rapid growth of the stored-value card industry — more than $300 billion a year by some estimates.

At a congressional hearing in mid-March, the FBI’s Mueller reported that “recent money laundering investigations have revealed a trend on the part of criminals to use stored-value devices such as pre-paid gift cards and reloadable debit cards in order to move criminal proceeds.

“This has created a shadow banking system…”

The largely unregulated stored-value card industry, he said, made it difficult for law enforcement to spot transaction patterns that can help identify money launderers and financiers of terrorism.

For further reading:
"Real criminals use virtual worlds to launder money", Press Release, University of the West of England, March 22, 2010
"Money launderers going high-tech", Miami Herald, March 18, 2010
"Virtual Money Inc. Bust Now Linked to Colombian Drug Money", DGC Magazine, December 9, 2009
"More on the cash menace", Dave Birch, September 21, 2007
"How to Launder Money in the Futures Market", J. Orlin Grabbe, November 24, 1996


  1. Thank God for The Shadow Economy and the Shadow Banking System!

    We pretty much had the same set of issues when I was the CEO at HushMail. Of course, scammers and crooks would use the encrypted email service to hide their tracks and we responded to about 125 government subpoenas per week (the inboxes were encrypted, however). Political dissidents in Tibet, asylum seekers, protected witnesses, etc were also the users of HushMail so I felt good about providing a liberating service to many around the world.

    What people fail to realize is that financial privacy is just as fundamental as communication/email privacy. Look at the Jews under Hitler that sought to protect their generational wealth. It is a core right (and not to be taken lightly). It matters not that other miscreants use a particular service, because laying the rails of the infrastructure benefits society for the good as well. Today, scammers and crooks use the telephones and mail, but we don’t blame the phone companies or the US Post Office. Furthermore, the underground economy is full of people using Helicopter Ben’s Federal Reserve notes but society doesn’t blame the Fed for providing paper $100 bills to the kidnappers, drug dealers, organized crime, and pedophiles.

    Anonymous, untraceable digital cash is a fundamental right of financial privacy. RESIST DIGITAL MONEY ….. unless it’s anonymous.

  2. Thomas L. Knapp of the Center for a Stateless Society has an excellent response to this Reuters piece which can be found at: