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Understanding Smurfing in Money Laundering

When it comes to money laundering, criminals are particularly resourceful, refining their techniques to make them increasingly complex and hard to detect. Smurfing (meaning breaking up a large amount of money into smaller sums) is one of these ingenious fraudulent operations. And it excels at flying under the radar, rarely triggering alerts for suspicious transactions. This makes it a financial crime staple that should be better understood so it can be combated more effectively.

In this article, we explore how dangerous Smurfing can be in financial contexts, how it differs from other money laundering practices, and how to prevent criminals from using the strategy successfully.

Definition of Smurfing: Meaning and Explanations

What is Smurfing? The meaning of the term doesn’t immediately jump to mind! It originates in drug trafficker slang, where it supposedly corresponds to the purchase of small quantities or various ingredients and substances to be combined into a finished product.

In money laundering, Smurfing is often equated to structuring. While these two practices are closely related, they are not exactly synonymous. Smurfing refers to the process of dividing a larger sum of money into multiple tiny transactions–hence the image of the fictional blue characters–to avoid detection by financial institutions. By keeping the amounts below reporting thresholds, Smurfs (also known as “Money Mules”) can circumvent scrutiny and
get away with their criminal activities.

Definition of Structuring

Structuring is closely connected, yet different from Smurfing, meaning that it relies on similar principles but has distinct objectives as well as its own approach.

So, what is structuring, exactly? The tactic is usually employed to circumvent reporting requirements, though concealing the source of the funds is not the primary intent. It doesn’t necessarily refer to organized crime, as it can involve a single individual making several deposits below the reporting threshold. The goal is typically to get around having to conform to the standard reporting requirements of AML protocols. The practice of structuring constitutes a violation of AML regulations and is considered a criminal offense. As such, it can result in severe legal repercussions.

How Smurfing Works

Understanding the Smurfing process is the first step toward combating this illegal practice. Here’s how Smurfing works:

  • The Smurf (or Money Mule) obtains a large amount of funds through illicit means.
  • The Smurf “places” the money by breaking down the original sum into small deposits sent to different accounts. These initial movements often don’t even require bank accounts, as standard user accounts on real-money gaming platforms are all it takes.
  • Then comes the “layering” stage, which is when the funds are moved between multiple bank accounts, further obscuring the audit trail to make tracing the money as challenging as possible.
  • Finally, the criminals get to the “integration” stage, where they reincorporate the funds obtained illicitly into the legal financial system. At this point, the laundering process comes full circle as the Smurf works alone or with other criminals to invest in genuine assets. For instance, they could use the money to invest in real estate or art, creating the illusion that the funds were obtained legally.

The Role of Smurfs in Money Laundering

So, what does Smurfing mean to money launderers? The practice has become a crucial tactic for criminals looking to evade taxes and conceal illicit funds. This “micro-money laundering” technique allows them to target an array of entities, including financial institutions, online merchants, Money Service Businesses (MSBs), cryptocurrency exchanges, the real estate industry, and more.

Going through Smurfs to launder money is a very effective way to minimize the risk of triggering built-in fraud detection systems at every turn, thus prolonging unlawful activities and increasing the potential for greater illegal earnings. Their techniques facilitate money laundering by obscuring money trails and bypassing transaction limits altogether.

Legal Implications and Detection

Understanding Smurfing–meaning acknowledging its prevalence and devising solutions to detect it–is pivotal to combat it. As are regulations addressing the issue.

Smurfing and the Law

The laws define Smurfing as an illegal–and therefore punishable–activity. Regarding Smurfing, legal consequences can range from fines to jail time, depending on the amount of money being laundered.

One of the laws recently put in place to deter Smurfing is the USA PATRIOT Act. The Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) was updated to include it, making it mandatory for banks to implement a Customer Identification Program (CIP).

The reporting thresholds for financial transactions such as deposits, withdrawals, and currency exchanges are set at $10,000, ensuring law enforcement agencies receive a Currency Transaction Report (CTR) anytime a transaction exceeds this amount.

Detecting Smurfing Activities

Detecting Smurfing–meaning being able to identify fraudulent activity at the earliest possible stage–is crucial to keeping businesses and financial institutions safe. From best practices all the way to state-of-the-art fraud detection tools, Smurfing detection methods can vary in efficacy but are always best combined. They include:

  • Know Your Customer Protocols (KYC)
  • Transaction monitoring (looking for high volumes of small transactions, sudden changes in account activity, frequent round-number transactions, etc.).
  • Advanced anti-fraud detection systems utilizing machine learning and AI to help identify fraudulent activity.
  • Risk assessments
  • Staff training
  • Auditing
  • Cooperation with the authorities
  • Efficient reporting when suspicious activity is identified
  • Two-factor authentication (2FA).

Smurfing in Different Contexts

There are various contexts where one may encounter Smurfing—meaning that the practice is not limited to the banking sector. With that being said, there are two main areas that Smurfing depends on for its continued success.

Smurfing in Banking and Finance

While not the only one, the banking and finance industry is strongly impacted by Smurfing.

What is Smurfing in banking, exactly? Smurfs rely on financial institutions when they need to “layer” the funds by moving them between accounts. This means banking establishments play an integral (albeit unwilling) part in the money-laundering scheme. As it moves from one account to the next, the money effectively obscures its illicit origin to the point that it appears legitimate.

Smurfing in iGaming and Online Platforms

There are also some online Smurfing scenarios in which iGaming platforms play the same role as banks. What is Smurfing in gaming? It’s a practice by which Smurfs purchase virtual items using illicit funds, move said items to different user accounts, and cash out the assets through legitimate channels, converting them into “clean” money.

Preventative Measures and Solutions

In the battle against Smurfing, awareness, strategy, and tools are the most powerful solutions at hand. In what often feels like an invisible war, solutions do exist, and they are advanced enough to give the upper hand to those who stand against Smurfing.

Combating Smurfing

While they may be difficult to detect, Smurfing operations always follow patterns. Thankfully, this is precisely the type of behavior that technologically driven solutions excel at detecting.

  • AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) are revolutionizing the way financial institutions detect irregularities and identify suspicious activities. AI and ML-enabled systems can sift through vast amounts of data and interpret it to flag any transaction that may require human verification.
  • Paired with AI and ML, big data analytics can prevent Smurfs from concealing their activities among the sheer volume of complex transactions. By analyzing all this data in near real-time, institutions can spot suspicious patterns quickly and accurately.
  • Network analytics offers another way of connecting the dots and highlighting hidden patterns between different entities (accounts, transactions, and people).
  • AML training and awareness ensure that all employees recognize the signs of Smurfing and know what to do if they suspect malicious goings-on.
  • Regular risk assessments can identify areas of vulnerability to prescribe targeted improvements.
  • KYC (Know Your Customer) and CDD (Customer Due Diligence) guarantee that the identity of every customer is validated and their risk profile assessed.
  • Finally, compliance with the regulatory framework (which must adapt regularly to address the evolution of money laundering practices) allows institutions to combat Smurfing on a global scale. From thorough record keeping to meticulous reporting, these precautions act both as a solution to detect Smurfing activities and as a deterrent to potential Smurfs who face a higher risk of detection.

Contact us now to find out more about our anti-smurfing solutions!