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Money laundering is the generic term used to describe the process by which criminals disguise the original ownership and control of the proceeds of criminal conduct by making such proceeds appear to have derived from a legitimate source.

The processes by which criminally derived property may be laundered are extensive. Though criminal money may be successfully laundered without the assistance of the financial sector, the reality is that hundreds of billions of dollars of criminally derived money is laundered through financial institutions, annually. The nature of the services and products offered by the financial services industry (namely managing, controlling and possessing money and property belonging to others) means that it is vulnerable to abuse by money launderers.

Where does money laundering occur?

As money laundering is a consequence of almost all profit generating crime, it can occur practically anywhere in the world. Generally, money launderers tend to seek out countries or sectors in which there is a low risk of detection due to weak or ineffective anti-money laundering programmes. Because the objective of money laundering is to get the illegal funds back to the individual who generated them, launderers usually prefer to move funds through stable financial systems.

Money laundering activity may also be concentrated geographically according to the stage the laundered funds have reached. At the placement stage, for example, the funds are usually processed relatively close to the under-lying activity; often, but not in every case, in the country where the funds originate.

With the layering phase, the launderer might choose an offshore financial centre, a large regional business centre, or a world banking centre – any location that provides an adequate financial or business infrastructure. At this stage, the laundered funds may also only transit bank accounts at various locations where this can be done without leaving traces of their source or ultimate destination.

Finally, at the integration phase, launderers might choose to invest laundered funds in still other locations if they were generated in unstable economies or locations offering limited investment opportunities.

How does money laundering affect business?

The integrity of the banking and financial services marketplace depends heavily on the perception that it functions within a framework of high legal, professional and ethical standards. A reputation for integrity is the one of the most valuable assets of a financial institution.

If funds from criminal activity can be easily processed through a particular institution – either because its employees or directors have been bribed or because the institution turns a blind eye to the criminal nature of such funds – the institution could be drawn into active complicity with criminals and become part of the criminal network itself. Evidence of such complicity will have a damaging effect on the attitudes of other financial intermediaries and of regulatory authorities, as well as ordinary customers.

As for the potential negative macroeconomic consequences of unchecked money laundering, one can cite inexplicable changes in money demand, prudential risks to bank soundness, contamination effects on legal financial transactions, and increased volatility of international capital flows and exchange rates due to unanticipated cross-border asset transfers. Also, as it rewards corruption and crime, successful money laudering damages the integrity of the entire society and undermines democracy and the rule of the law.

How is money laundered?

The processes are extensive. Generally speaking, money is laundered whenever a person or business deals in any way with another person’s benefit from crime. That can occur in a countless number of diverse ways.

Traditionally money laundering has been described as a process which takes place in three distinct stages.

Placement, the stage at which criminally derived funds are introduced in the financial system.

Layering, the substantive stage of the process in which the property is ‘washed’ and its ownership and source is disguised.

Integration, the final stage at which the ‘laundered’ property is re-introduced into the legitimate economy.

This three staged definition of money laundering is highly simplistic. The reality is that the so called stages often overlap and in some cases, for example in cases of financial crimes, there is no requirement for the proceeds of crime to be ‘placed’.

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