Sunday, July 09, 2006

Hawala money laundering

The following link to an article “The hawala alternative remittance system and its role in money laundering” is found on an Interpol website. It give some interesting knowledge about how money laundering is sometimes done.

Thanks to my friend Neal Hitzig for the link.

Here are some excerpts.

Hawala works by transferring money without actually moving it. In fact 'money transfer without money movement' is a definition of hawala that was used, successfully, in a hawala money laundering case.

Abdul calls the number, and speaks with Yasmeen. She offers him the following deal:

A fee of 1 rupee for each dollar transferred;

37 rupees for a dollar; and

Delivery is included.

Under these terms (6), Abdul can send Mohammad Rs 180,000. He decides to do business with Yasmeen.

The hawala transaction proceeds as follows:

Abdul gives the $5,000 to Yasmeen;

Yasmeen contacts Ghulam in Karachi, and gives him the details;

Ghulam arranges to have Rs 180,000 delivered to Mohammad.

Even though this is a simple example, it contains the elements of a hawala transaction. First, there is trust between Abdul and Yasmeen. Yasmeen did not give him a receipt, and her recordkeeping, such as it may be, is designed to keep track of how much money she owes Ghulam, instead of recording individual remittances she has made. There are several possible relationships she can have with Ghulam (these will be discussed later); in any case she trusts him to make the payment to Mohammad. This delivery almost always takes place within a day of the initial payment (a consideration here is time differences), arid the payment is almost always made in person. Finally, in some scenarios, he trusts her to repay him the equivalent of either $5,000 or Rs 180,000.

If Yasmeen needs to pay Ghulam the Rs 180,000 that he has given to Mohammad, she can do it by 'under invoicing' a shipment to him. She could, for example, send him $20,000 worth of telecommunications devices, but only invoice him for $15,000. Ghulam pays Yasmeen $15,000 against this invoice. The 'extra' value of goods, in this case $5,000 (the equivalent of Rs 180,000) is the money that she owes him.

In order to move money the other way (in this case, from Pakistan to New York)',over invoicing' can be used. For this example, it is assumed that Ghulam owes Yasmeen $5,000. She could buy $10,000 of telecommunications devices, and send it to Ghulam with an invoice for $15,000. Ghulam would pay her $15,000; this covers the $10,000 for the telecommunications devices as well as the other $5,000.

When compared to a 'traditional' means of remitting money, such as obtaining a check or ordering a wire transfer, hawala seems cumbersome and risky. In this section, we will examine the motivations for using the hawala system.

The primary reason is cost effectiveness. As was shown in this example, Abdul was able to obtain nearly Rs 30,000 more (averaging exchange rates, this is about US$ 880), a significant savings by using the hawala system. Some of the reasons for this cost effectiveness, namely low overhead, exchange rate speculation and integration with existing business activities, will be discussed in the next section of this paper.

The second reason is efficiency. A hawala remittance takes place in, at most, one or two days. This can be contrasted with the week or so required for an international wire transfer involving at least one correspondent bank (as well as delays due to holidays, weekends and time differences) or about the same amount of time required to send a bank draft from North America to South Asia via a courier service (surface mail is not a reliable option where the contents are valuable, and it can also take several weeks to arrive).

The third reason is reliability. Complex international transactions, which might involve the client's local bank, its correspondent bank, the main office of a foreign bank and a branch office of the recipient's foreign bank, have the potential to be problematic. In at least once instance reported to the authors, money for a large commercial transaction (money being sent from the United States to South Asia) was lost 'in transit' for several weeks while trying to conduct such a transaction. When the bank located the money, it was returned to the customer. He enlisted the services of a local hawaladar, who was able to complete the transaction in less than a day.

The fourth reason is the lack of bureaucracy. Abdul is living and working in the United States on an expired student visa; he does not have a social security number (and since he deals almost exclusively in cash, he really does not need one). It would be difficult, if not impossible for him to open a bank account as he does not have adequate identification. In addition, he does not completely trust banks and would prefer not to use them if at all possible. Iqbal and Yasmeen do not operate in a 'bureaucratic' framework, making them a preferable alternative to the bank.

The fifth reason is the lack of a paper trail. Even though Abdul earned the money that he sent to Mohammad legally, he would prefer to remain anonymous (this is a much more important consideration in illicit hawala transactions). Since it is rare for hawaladars to keep records of individual transactions, it is unlikely that Abdul's remittance will ever be identified as part of the business dealings between Yasmeen, Ghulam and their associates.

The sixth reason is tax evasion. In South Asia, the 'black' or parallel economy is 30%-50% of the 'white' or documented economy. Money remitted through official channels might invite scrutiny from tax authorities - hawala provides a scrutiny-free remittance channel.

Money laundering consists of three phases: placement, layering and integration. Since hawala is a remittance system, it can be used at any phase.

In placement, money derived from criminal activities is introduced into the financial system. In many money laundering schemes, the biggest 'problem' here is handling cash. Some jurisdictions, such as the United States, require reporting by financial institutions of cash transactions over a certain amount (in the U.S. it is US$ 10,000) (12), and attempting to circumvent such reporting requirements by making smaller transactions is an offense.

Hawala can provide an effective means of placement. In the example, Abdul gave Yasmeen US$ 5,000 in cash. Since she also operates a business (and also performs remittance services for others), she will make periodic bank deposits consisting of cash and checks. She will justify these deposits to bank officials as the proceeds of her legitimate business. Even though she might prefer it if reports were not filed, she will not object to this as it would arouse suspicion at the bank (and her business provides more than adequate justification). She may also use some of the cash received to meet business expenses, reducing her need to deposit that cash into her bank account.

In the layering stage, the money launderer manipulates the illicit funds to make them appear as though they were derived from a legitimate source. A component of many layering schemes has been seen to be the transfer of money from one account to another. Even though this is done as carefully as possible, when it is done through the 'traditional' banking system it presents two problems to the money launderer. First, there is the possibility that a transaction could be considered to be suspicious and reported as such. Related to this is the paper trail created by these transactions. If any portion of the laundering network is examined, the related paper trails could lead a diligent investigator directly to the source of the criminal proceeds and unravel the money laundering network.

Hawala transfers leave a sparse or confusing paper trail if any. Even when invoice manipulation is used, the mixture of legal goods and illegal money, confusion about `valid' prices and a possibly complex international shipping network create a trail much more complicated than a simple wire transfer.

Both of the authors of this paper have investigated hawala money laundering, and have found that even 'basic' hawala transfers can be difficult to trace and tie to the original, criminal source of money. There is no reason, however, why hawala transfers could not be 'layered' to make following the money even more difficult. This could be done by using hawala brokers in several countries, and by distributing the transfers over time.

In the final stage of money laundering, integration, the launderer invests in other assets, uses the funds to enjoy his ill-gotten gains or to continue to invest in additional illegal activities. The same characteristics of hawala that make it a potential tool for the layering of money also make it ideal for the integration of money. This is when money seems to become legitimate, and, as we have seen, hawala techniques are capable of transforming money into almost any form, offering many possibilities for establishing an appearance of legitimacy.

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