Criminals are laundering “billions” using bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, according to E.U. law enforcement agency Europol. Although director Rob Wainwright used the statistics to call for more industry and regulatory action to combat it, some commentators noted the amount is tiny compared to that passing through the heavily-regulated banking system.
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Bitcoin Laundering a Tiny Percentage
Europol’s claims, which the mainstream media is reporting uncritically, are that £3-4 billion GBP ($4.1-5.5 billion USD) in criminal proceeds is “cleaned” by converting into cryptocurrencies, splitting into smaller amounts, and cashing back into fiat through people acting as money “mules”.
The BBC report did not give a timeframe for this, but noted Europol’s estimate would represent about 3-4 percent of Europe’s £100 billion in illegal revenue.
Consultant and “Blockchain Insider” podcast host Simon Taylor pointed out in a tweet that cryptocurrency’s percentage seems paltry. That’s especially so if compared to the total money laundered through traditional financial services globally:
So @Europol say €2/3bn is laundered via crypto. If a €500bn market that's 0.5%
Compared to an estimated $2trn of money laundering in wider financial services this is tiny and much easier to detect / prevent.
Im surprised it's being briefed against. Cc @ukhomeoffice
— Simon Taylor (@sytaylor) February 12, 2018
Taylor called the BBC’s report “horribly misleading”, saying it lacked context.
Regulation Not Stopping Banking’s Money Laundering Party
Whether Europol’s statistics on cryptocurrency are accurate or not, the argument that more regulatory action would prevent money laundering seems weak. If it did, then the amount of money laundered through the traditional financial system would be minimal.
Bitsonline reported just last week that the California arm of Dutch bank Rabobank had been fined $368 million USD for willfully ignoring suspicious transactions linked to Mexican drug cartels — and then attempting to block investigations into the matter.
Not only that, but Rabobank’s fine was small compared to those imposed on other multinational banks for similar illegal activities. HSBC was fined $1.9 billion USD for AML regulatory breaches in 2012 that involved no bitcoin-related activity.
The BBC continued with its ominous tone on Europol’s stats, adding “The warning comes after Bitcoin’s value fell by half from record highs in December.” How this relates to money laundering or crime is unclear.
“The anonymous and unregulated nature of virtual currencies is attracting criminals, making it hard for police to track them as it is difficult to identify who is moving payments.”
Banks face increasing KYC-AML regulation, requiring them to collection extensive personal and business data on clients, and report “suspicious” transactions.” But if regulating that industry still produces trillions in laundered criminal proceeds, how would it stop the flow through cryptocurrencies?
Bitcoin, Crypto Conversion to Fiat Currencies Already Regulated
Additionally, while cryptocurrency itself is not governed or monitored by central authorities, conversion to and from national fiat currencies generally happens on exchanges — which now face KYC-AML rules similar to banks. Transactions may happen off-exchange using cash or other assets, but moving large sums presents the same challenges as using cash or assets for any other transaction.
Blockchain transactions can be traced through their various addresses, since the ledger is public and permanent. If exchanges are regulated, then the real identity behind those addresses should be known. Therefore, bitcoin (when converted in and out of fiat) is no more “anonymous” or “hard to track” than any other currency.
If criminals received only cryptocurrencies and spent only cryptocurrencies, Europol and BBCs claims would be valid. But that’s not how the crypto economy works at this early stage. Fiat conversion is still necessary at some point.
Piling more AML regulation onto cryptocurrency exchanges seems to be government’s best recommendation. Then again, it doesn’t appear to stop the legacy financial system from laundering criminal money with abandon — so how effective would it even be?
Is bitcoin money laundering a real problem, and can it be stopped? Let’s hear your thoughts.
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