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What is Money Laundering?

Money laundering is the process of taking large amounts of illegally obtained funds and making their source seem legitimate. Money earned through criminal activity is considered “dirty,” and through money laundering it becomes “clean.” Once cleaned, the money can be used without being traced back to the criminal activities it originated from.

Money laundering occurs in connection with all types of profit-generating crime. Some experts estimate that over $1 trillion is laundered every year. Practitioners of money laundering include organized criminal groups like drug traffickers as well as government officials and major financial institutions. Whistleblowers can play a key role in the detection of money laundering and opportunities exist for them to be rewarded for their disclosures. Under certain reward laws, whistleblowers are entitled to awards of up to 30% of the funds recovered by the government in connection to their disclosure.

Key Takeaways

  • Money laundering is the illegal process of making money earned from criminal activity seem legitimate.
  • There are three main steps to money laundering: placement, layering, and integration.
  • There are many types of money laundering and money laundering occurs in connection with a wide range of criminal activity.
  • Some studies estimate that over $1 trillion USD is laundered globally each year.
  • Whistleblowers are key in exposing money laundering, and can be rewarded for their disclosures.

How Money Laundering Works

There are three main steps to money laundering: placement, layering, and integration.

In the placement phase, the illegally obtained money is introduced into the financial system. For example, the funds may be deposited into a bank or added to the accounts of an existing business.

Layering involves carrying out a series of complex financial transactions in order to obscure the illegal source of the funds. An example of layering would be placing funds into the stock market and shuffling it around through a number of transactions or foreign currency exchanges.

Finally, during integration, the newly “cleaned” money reenters the legitimate economy. An example of integration would be using laundered money to make a large business investment.

Types of Money Laundering

Money laundering occurs in many different forms ranging in complexity. A common type is called “smurfing” or “structuring.” In smurfing, the illegally obtained funds are broken up into smaller amounts. These smaller amounts are deposited separately and often into various bank accounts in order to avoid suspicion of money laundering.

Other types of money laundering include smuggling bulk amounts of cash into other countries, using cash-intensive legitimate businesses as fronts, utilizing shell companies and trusts, and gambling at casinos.

The growth of online banking and cryptocurrencies have opened up new avenues for money laundering. The relative anonymity of these methods means that electronic money laundering is often difficult to detect.

The Scope of Money Laundering

Money laundering occurs all over the globe and appears in connection with all types of profit-generating crime. Practitioners of money laundering range from organized crime groups and drug traffickers to government officials and financial institutions.

Given the clandestine nature of money laundering it is hard to know how much money is laundered each year. Some estimates place the total amount of money laundered globally each year at 2-5% of global GDP, or $800 billion-$2 trillion in USD. It is also estimated that approximately $300 billion USD was laundered in the United States in 2019.

Efforts to Combat Money Laundering

Laws and policies to police money laundering exist on both the national and international level. In recent decades, there has been an uptick in efforts to uncover and prevent money laundering. New legislation has been passed, and new enforcement efforts have been launched.

The first major anti-money laundering law in the United States was the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) of 1970. The law instituted a number of recordkeeping standards for banks and requires financial institutions to inform the Department of Treasury of large or suspicious bank deposits. It was not until the passage of the Money Laundering Control Act in 1986, however, that money laundering itself became illegal.

In 1987, the G-7 formed the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to police money laundering on an international scale. There are currently 39 member nations in the FATF which examines money laundering techniques and trends, reviews the enforcement and prevention actions which have already been taken at a national or international level, and establishes the steps that still need to be taken to combat money laundering.

In 2021, the United States passed the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AML Act) which contains numerous amendments to the BSA and other anti-money laundering laws. The law aimed to modernize reporting requirements and to expand the authority of investigative and enforcement efforts.

The AML Act includes a whistleblower reward provision modeled on those of the Dodd-Frank Act. Under the law, whistleblowers who provide authorities with original information about money laundering violations which leads to a successful enforcement action are entitled to an award of up to 30% of the sanctions collected by the government in the case. The Act additionally includes anti-retaliation protections for whistleblowers disclosing money laundering violations.

While the whistleblower reward provision of the AML Act was an important step towards incentivizing insiders to expose money laundering, the Act has a number of shortcomings which undermine the legislation. Notably, the law does not establish a mandatory minimum for awards, meaning that awards are in practice completely discretionary. Furthermore, the law does not extend anti-retaliation protections to employees of Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) or Credit Union insured institutions.

Whistleblowing and Money Laundering

Whistleblowers can play a key role in the detection of money laundering. Money laundering is difficult to detect, particularly when financial institutions are complicit in the illegal activity. Thus, insiders are often the only way authorities can be alerted of money laundering violations.

The recently enacted AML Act aims to incentivize and protect money laundering whistleblowers. Qualified whistleblowers can receive a monetary award of up to 30% of the funds recovered by the government. The AML Act also extends anti-retaliation protections to money laundering whistleblowers, ensuring that they cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against for blowing the whistle.

Whistleblowers are able to make disclosures anonymously by hiring a whistleblower attorney. Contacting an experienced whistleblower attorney before making a disclosure can help ensure a whistleblower is fully protected under the law and eligible for the largest award possible.

Firm Money Laundering Cases

  • Howard Wilkinson - Money Laundering Whistleblower

    On September 19, 2018, news broke of $234 billion money laundering scheme. The scheme moved rubbles out of Russia, converted them to dollars at the Estonian branch of Danske Bank, and then moved the dollars to New York with the assistance of three correspondent banks (Bank of America, J.P Morgan, and Deutsche Bank). Danske Bank admitted all of its internal controls designed to prevent money laundering had failed. The bank also revealed that the scheme had been reported to the highest levels of the bank by a whistleblower over four years before. The whistleblower’s identity was required to be secret. But it took only days for his name to leak out. Soon the entire international banking world learned that the former Danske Bank manager Howard Wilkinson had exposed the largest money laundering scheme in history, and that the bank had tried to cover it up.

AML Resources and Links

Protect yourself by learning about the AML act, whistleblower laws, and reading additional frequently asked questions.

Commodity Futures Trading Commission
Three Lafayette Centre
1155 21st St. NW
Washington, DC 20581
www.whistleblower.gov (website for Office of the Whistleblower)

Internal Revenue Service
Whistleblower Office
SE: WO 1111
Constitution Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20224
www.irs.gov/uac/whistleblower-informant-award (Office of the Whistleblower
web page). The IRS Whistleblower Office’s website has information on informant awards.

U.S. Department of Labor
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
200 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20210
www.whistleblowers.gov (OSHA Whistleblower Programs web page)
The OSHA website contains information regarding the IRS whistleblower anti-retalaition law and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s corporate whistleblower law. The website will soon update with information on the AML Act’s whistleblower law.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
SEC Office of the Whistleblower
100 F St. NE
Mail Stop 5971
Washington, DC 20549
Fax number: 703-813-9322
The SEC’s Whistleblower Office has an online process for filing complaints with the SEC and also contains information and links related to the Dodd-Frank whistleblower provisions. The website contains information on how to file whistleblower reward claims in accordance with SEC rules.

  • August 12, 2022

    In a new op-ed for The Hill, leading whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto outlines the urgent need for whistleblower protections targeting Russian money laundering and sanctions busting. Kohn reviews legislation pending in both the House and the Senate which “give the Department of Treasury the ability to successfully track down the hundreds of billions of dollars that passed through American banks.” The money laundering and sanctions legislation which Kohn details are H.R.7195 and S.3316. The bipartisan bills offer reforms to the current anti-money laundering whistleblower program and establish protections for sanctions whistleblowers. “Why is the whistleblower legislation so badly needed?” Kohn writes. “First, there are no protections whatsoever for whistleblowers who report sanctions violations… Second, whether you are reporting money laundering or sanctions busting, the Department of Treasury lacks the ability to compensate you for your sacrifices or information, nor is there any requirement that any reward or compensation ever be paid to a whistleblower.” Kohn explains that the fixes offered by the reform bills are 100% based upon successful whistleblower provisions found in the Dodd-Frank Act, the Wall Street reform bill which established the SEC Whistleblower Program. “The Dodd-Frank procedures are a win-win-win for accountability,” Kohn writes. According to Kohn, “[t]he last remaining known hurdle in the House is coming from the Appropriations Committee, Chaired by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). Once she signs off on the bill it should quickly move forward.” ...

  • June 22, 2022

    On June 22, the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services voted unanimously by voice to approve H.R. 7195, a bill amending the whistleblower provisions of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (AML Act). The AML Act established a whistleblower award program for money laundering whistleblowers but major loopholes have undermined the program. H.R. 7195 closes these loopholes. “This bipartisan, bicameral legislation provides a proven solution to improving the whistleblower fund of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN),” said Representative Alma Adams (D-NC) the principal sponsor of the bill. “FinCEN’s whistleblower fund was designed to pay awards to the brave souls who too often risk their livelihoods and their lives to report criminal wrongdoing that they witness. Unfortunately, we have found that FinCEN’s award model which we implemented in 2020 AMLA has been so far insufficient to meet the statutory requirements. So I’m proud to say this legislation brings FinCEN’s fund in line with other successful funds currently operating in the federal government and will substantially aid FinCEN as it executes its Congressionally directed mission.” H.R. 7195 addressed two major shortcomings with the AML Act. First, the bill adds a required statutory minimum award of 10%. Currently, there is no minimum award guarantee, meaning that all whistleblower awards through the program are discretionary. Discretionary award programs have proven to be ineffective at properly incentivizing whistleblowing. “This bicameral, bipartisan legislation will strengthen ...

  • June 8, 2022

    The latest issue of Ethical Boardroom, a magazine focusing on global corporate governance issues, features a piece written by Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto (KKC) founding partner Stephen M. Kohn. Kohn’s article, entitled “Bankers, Putin, and the Whistleblowers,” provides an overview of U.S. corporate whistleblowing laws and the role they play in the U.S. strategy to combat corruption. Kohn begins by highlighting the Danske Bank whistleblower Howard Wilkinson, a KKC client. Wilkinson is a former Danske Bank employee who blew the whistle on a $230 billion Russian money-laundering scheme centered in an Estonian branch of Danske Bank. The scheme profited Russian oligarchs, relatives of Vladimir Putin, the FSB (the Russian secret police), and individuals involved in organized crime in Russia. According to Kohn, Wilkinson “figured out that to which the entire anti-money laundering (AML) compliance programme had turned a blind eye. The banks had profited from Russian criminals, money laundering, and illegal monetary transfers. But the Oligarchs were the big winners. The rule of law was the biggest loser.” Kohn highlights Wilkinson in order to show how effective corporate whistleblowing is in exposing corruption across the globe. He notes that “the U.S. Congress passed a whistleblower reward law covering money laundering two years after the Danske Bank scandal was reported in the worldwide press.” According to Kohn, the AML whistleblower law joined the growing list of other whistleblower reward laws, all ...

Frequently Asked Questions

Money laundering is the process of converting dirty money into “clean” money – in other words, taking money generated by criminal activity, such as drug trafficking, foreign bribery, or terrorist funding, and adding it to the legitimate US money supply, making it appear as though it came from a legitimate source. Smurfing or structuring is a common type of money laundering, where small amounts of illegal money is divided and deposited into dozens of bank accounts.

Whistleblowers may anonymously report money laundering and apply for rewards, but by law, they must work with an attorney. Working with an whistleblower attorney will also ensure you are eligible for the largest award possible and receive maximum protection against retaliation.

There are three main steps to money laundering: placementlayering, and integration. Money is first introduced into the system (placement), where it is then used in a series of obfuscated financial transactions (layering), and then reintroduced into the legitimate economy as clean money (integration).