Trade-based money laundering (TBML) is the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and moving value through trade transactions in an attempt to legitimize their illicit origins. This highly sophisticated form of money laundering has become a favorite method for transnational criminals, dictators, and terrorists to move ill-gotten gains to new jurisdictions.
This event examined what TBML is, how it works, and why it has become such a ubiquitous method of laundering money. Panelists also discussed the broader interplay of illicit commerce, global corruption, and TBML. Finally, panelists recommended practical steps the United States and non-governmental organizations can take to counter TBML.
David Luna, President and CEO of Luna Global Networks, shared his insights on the dark side of globalization and how it fits into the TBML paradigm. Luna outlined the need to increase understanding of the networks between illicit commerce and money laundering across legal and illegal means through convergence crimes. He spoke to the methodologies of “cleaning dirty money” utilized by kleptocrats, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups, while expressing the importance of tracing money and the value of goods to expose illicit crimes. Luna cited a 2015 World Economic Forum report to support his points, which estimated the value of transnational criminal activities between 8-15 percent of Gross Domestic Product, even by conservative standards, totaling around 80 trillion in the US market.
John Cassara, retired Special Agent of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, spoke about the confusion surrounding TBML, both in understanding and enforcement. He explained that TBML is the largest method of money laundering because of excess ways to commit it: customs fraud, tax evasion, export incentive fraud, evading capitol controls, barter trade, and underground financial systems. Cassara explained how money is transferred under the noses of customs enforcement by undervaluing or overvaluing an invoice of an otherwise legal trade. Cassara asked, “If our highly trained police force can’t catch this, what about the rest of the world?”
Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director at Global Financial Integrity, described the difficulty with tracking TBML, both domestically and internationally. She outlined how domestic policy and law complicates internal tracking, while the lack of consistent transnational collaboration and information sharing complicates international tracking. Kumar spoke to the components of the trade chain and how hard it is to watch all the mechanisms with due diligence. Explaining the role of banks, Kumar noted that 80 percent of all international trade occurs through open account trading, in which banks aren’t involved or able to offer oversight. This allows for trade profits to be separated into various accounts, tricking the customs and enforcement agencies to enforce a lower level of taxation on the profits and the freights and allowing for TBML.
In summary, even with world class law enforcement, the U.S. legal and financial frameworks needs to catch up in order to adequately combat TBML.