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How big data analytics can help track money laundering

Thor Olavsrud | Jan. 21, 2015
Criminal and terrorist organizations are increasingly relying on international trade to hide the flow of illicit funds across borders. Big data analytics may be the key to tracking these financial flows.

The Need to Share Data

This state of affairs is exacerbated by a number of factors, especially the lack of data sharing between customs, tax and legal authorities and a tendency to rely on AML procedures designed to target cash smuggling and financial system misuse. Instead, PwC says, authorities need to develop targeted TBML responses that focus on data sharing and text and data analytics.

So what exactly does TBML look like? Common TBML techniques include the following:

  • Under-invoicing. The exporter invoices trade goods at a price below the fair market price. This allows the exporter to effectively transfer value to the importer, as the payment for the trade goods will be lower than the value the importer receives when reselling the goods on the open market.
  • Over-invoicing. This technique is much the same as the first, except in reverse. The exporter invoices trade goods at a price above the fair market value, allowing the importer to transfer value to the exporter.
  • Multiple invoicing. With this technique, a money launderer or terrorist financier issues multiple invoices for the same international trade transaction, justifying multiple payments for the same shipment. "Payments can originate from different financial institutions, adding to the complexity of detection, and legitimate explanations can be offered if the scheme is uncovered (e.g., amendment of payment terms, payment of late fees, etc.)," the report explains.
  • Over- and under-shipment. In some cases, the parties simply overstate or understate the quantities of goods shipped relative to the payments sent or received. PwC calls out an extreme example of this, known as "phantom shipping," in which no goods are exchanged at all, but shipping and customs documents are processed as normal.
  • False description of trade goods. With this technique, money launderers misrepresent the quality or type of trade goods. For instance, they might replace an expensive item listed on the invoice and customs documents with an inexpensive item.
  • Informal money transfer systems (IMTS). These networks have, in many cases, been co-opted by criminals and terrorists. PwC points to Colombia's Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE) as a prime example. Established by Colombian businesses trying to get around Colombia's restrictive currency exchange policies, the BMPE allows users to sell dollars to a broker, who then trades them for Pesos to a legitimate Colombian business that needs hard U.S. currency to purchase goods for shipment to South America. It's not just Colombian drug traffickers repatriating their profits either; PwC notes that similar systems exist around the world, including the hawalahundi system on the Indian sub-continent and others in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

To further mask their activities, criminal organizations rely on a number of tactics, including the use of front and shell companies, barter transactions, funnel accounts, trade in high-risk jurisdictions or lightly regulated developing economies and use of free-trade zones that are lightly regulated and make it easy to set up new legal entities.

 

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