Category Archives: Money Laundering

The Versatile Microcap

A microcap is a publicly traded company whose stock might be worth only pennies, which causes its price to be volatile and thus easier for fraudsters to manipulate. Although CFEs like our Central Virginia Chapter members might not regularly come across microcap stock manipulation, it’s important for all of us to be aware of the methods and motivations behind this significant criminal activity. In this scheme, promoters and insiders, after cheaply purchasing a stock, typically pump up its value through embellished or entirely false news. However, as reported recently in the trade press, other fraudsters have successfully employed much more creative strategies in exploiting microcaps. Several articles and books have told of the involvement of organized crime, especially throughout the ’00s and ’10s, in this highly profitable illegal business.

Basic pump and dump schemes, also known as hype and dump manipulation, involve the touting of a company’s stock (typically micro-cap companies) through false or misleading statements to the marketplace. After pumping up the stock, scam artists make huge profits by selling or dumping their cheap stock onto the market. Today, pump and dump schemes have been updated and most frequently occur over the Internet, where it is common to see e-mail and other messages posted that urge consumers to buy a stock quickly or to sell their stocks before the price goes down. In some cases, a spam-call telemarketer contacts potential investors using the same sort of pitch. Often the promoters claim to have inside information about an impending development, or to have employed an infallible combination of economic and stock market data to pick stocks. In reality, they may be company insiders or paid promoters who stand to gain by selling their shares after the stock price is pumped up by the buying frenzy they create. Once these fraudulent promoters dump their shares and stop hyping the stock, the price typically falls and investors lose their money.

In another recent but simple form of the micro-cap scheme, a caller leaves a message on a potential victim’s voice mail under the guise of someone who dialed the wrong number. Sounding as if they didn’t realize they had misdialed, the message contains a hot investment tip for a friend. However, the caller is actually a spammer, someone being paid to tout this stock on hundreds of cell phones. Those behind the scheme generally own some of the stock and hope to profit by pumping up the share price and selling off their investments.

Pump-and-dump schemes can be as relatively simple as the one above, or such as an individual or small group releasing false information in a chat room or insiders publishing inflated company information. Sometimes the business owners themselves are complicit, especially with shell corporations that have little actual operations or value. Occasionally, scammers dupe business owners into participating in schemes through promises of investment support and/or related marketing help. Or fraudsters, unbeknownst to the victim company, hijack their target company’s stock and falsely hype it, which often causes irreparable damage to the owners’ and to their business’ reputations. CFEs whose clients include small or new venture businesses should be especially cautious of unsolicited offers made to their clients to receive loans or to raise capital through microcap stock offerings. Criminals commonly target businesses in the pharmaceutical, energy or technology sectors, attempting to use their names and initial offerings to manipulate stock for profit.

More complex microcap stock manipulation schemes involving organized crime typically employ a number of persons who are instructed to buy in at various points that coincide with a series of false press releases and concurrent investor forum-controlled chat and spam emails. This orchestrated activity provides the illusion of stock movement resulting from large investor interest thus drawing in the required funds of outsider victims. The actual manipulation often resembles a series of smaller pumps and dumps instead of one large event. So the fraudsters can use the same stock over and over with less chance of detection by regulatory authorities. More refined players also employ foreign or off-shore brokerage accounts as a further veil over their illegal activities.

When the organized manipulation plan succeeds, the ringleaders will permit the accomplices to sell and obtain their related profit depending on their hierarchy in the organization. However, the end process is often far from perfect. Occasionally, accomplices don’t follow instructions, at their significant personal risk, and sell too early or late. Even if the manipulation isn’t always successful, organized crime members who have invested in the process expect and demand a certain profit, which places additional pressure on participants who might find they have debt on their hands because of their failures.

Occasionally, outsiders also take large positions either profiting from or destroying the momentum of the criminal group. In the 1990s, when trades were completed through actual brokers, criminals could use threats or actual violence to control such unwanted participants. However, technological trading platforms have made this more difficult.

A less common, yet also profitable, technique is to put downward pressure on a stock (or cause the price to decrease) after buying the equity on loan through a contract, or option, with the hopes of buying the stock or settling the contract once the stock has dropped in price. Fraudsters can initiate this manipulation technique, commonly known as ‘short and distort,’ by promoting rumors such as a bad quarter or failed new drug test.

The ability to manipulate microcap stocks with relative ease also makes the activity an ideal tool to hide payments between parties and launder money. Instead of paying cash or wiring funds to settle a drug debt, one can simply provide a tip relating to a microcap stock that’s about to be manipulated. The party who’s owed the debt then only has to buy the stock cheaply and await for the pump to make the sale and generate the profit.

Perpetrators also have used the same process to offer bribes to public servants. Troublesome envelopes or bags of cash aren’t required. The profit appears as a simple lucky or astute stock pick, and culprits can even report them as capital gains thus removing the risk of highly feared and powerful tax investigators becoming involved in a possible money-laundering investigation. Police and securities regulatory authorities have observed and reported such suspicious activity. However, it’s often difficult to link those who profit from the manipulation with the culpable manipulators. Also, considering that organized crime elements employ microcap manipulation for debt payments and as profitable crimes, it’s again challenging for authorities to identify the exact goals of their participation without some inside knowledge. Proving all the elements of the crime is nearly impossible without wire taps or a co-conspirator witness.

With all this said, it’s ironic, yet not surprising, that more than one organized-crime figure has said they don’t invest their own criminal earnings in microcap stocks because they deem such markets to be too risky and plagued by manipulators.

So, in summary, if you, as a CFE, come across information relating to a microcap investment involving a case you’re working, you might want to take a closer look.

With regard to preventing investment fraud schemes in general … caution your clients:

• to not invest in anything based upon appearances. Just because an individual or company has a flashy website doesn’t mean it is legitimate. Websites can be created in a matter of hours and taken down even faster. After a short period of taking money, a site can vanish without a trace.
• to not invest in anything about which they are not absolutely sure. Do homework on an investment to ensure it is legitimate.
• to thoroughly investigate the offering individual or company to ensure legitimacy.
• to check out other websites regarding this person or company.
• to be cautious when responding to special investment offers (especially through unsolicited e-mail) by fast talking telemarketers. Know with whom you are dealing!
• to inquire about all the terms and conditions involved with the investors and the investment.
• Rule of thumb: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Financing Death One BitCoin at a Time

Over the past decade, fanatic religious ideologists have evolved to become hybrid terrorists demonstrating exceptional versatility, innovation, opportunism, ruthlessness, and cruelty. Hybrid terrorists are a new breed of organized criminal. Merriam-Webster defines hybrid as “something that is formed by combining two or more things”. In the twentieth century, the military, intelligence forces, and law enforcement agencies each had a specialized skill-set to employ in response to respective crises involving insurgency, international terrorism, and organized crime. Military forces dealt solely with international insurgent threats to the government; intelligence forces dealt solely with international terrorism; and law enforcement agencies focused on their respective country’s organized crime entities. In the twenty-first century, greed, violence, and vengeance motivate the various groups of hybrid terrorists. Hybrid terrorists rely on organized crime such as money laundering, wire transfer fraud, drug and human trafficking, shell companies, and false identification to finance their organizational operations.

Last week’s horrific terror bombing in Manchester brings to the fore, yet again, the issue of such terrorist financing and the increasing role of forensic accountants in combating it. Two of the main tools of modern terror financing schemes are money laundering and virtual currency.

Law enforcement and government agencies in collaboration with forensic accountants play key roles in tracing the source of terrorist financing to the activities used to inflict terror on local and global citizens. Law enforcement agencies utilize investigative and predictive analytics tools to gather, dissect, and convey data to distinguish patterns leading to future terrorist events. Government agencies employ database inquiries of terrorist-related financial information to evaluate the possibilities of terrorist financing and activities. Forensic accountants review the data for patterns related to previous transactions by utilizing data analysis tools, which assist in tracking the source of the funds.

As we all know, forensic accountants use a combination of accounting knowledge combined with investigative skills in litigation support and investigative accounting settings. Several types of organizations, agencies, and companies frequently employ forensic accountants to provide investigative services. Some of these organizations are public accounting firms, law firms, law enforcement agencies, The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

Locating and halting the source of terrorist financing involves two tactics, following the money and drying up the money. Obstructing terrorist financing requires an understanding of both the original and supply source of the illicit funds. As the financing is derived from both legal and illegal funding sources, terrorists may attempt to evade detection by funneling money through legitimate businesses thus making it difficult to trace. Charitable organizations and reputable companies provide a legitimate source through which terrorists may pass money for illicit activities without drawing the attention of law enforcement agencies. Patrons of legitimate businesses are often unaware that their personal contributions may support terrorist activities. However, terrorists also obtain funds from obvious illegal sources, such as kidnapping, fraud, and drug trafficking. Terrorists often change daily routines to evade law enforcement agencies as predictable patterns create trails that are easy for skilled investigators to follow. Audit trails can be traced from the donor source to the terrorist by forensic accountants and law enforcement agencies tracking specific indicators. Audit trails reveal where the funds originate and whether the funds came from legal or illegal sources. The ACFE tells us that basic money laundering is a specific type of illegal funding source, which provides a clear audit trail.

Money laundering is the process of obtaining and funneling illicit funds to disguise the connection with the original unlawful activity. Terrorists launder money to spend the unlawfully obtained money without drawing attention to themselves and their activities. To remain undetected by regulatory authorities, the illicit funds being deposited or spent need to be washed to give the impression that the money came from a seemingly reputable source. There are types of unusual transactions that raise red flags associated with money laundering in financial institutions. The more times an unusual transaction occurs, the greater the probability it is the product of an illicit activity. Money laundering may be quite sophisticated depending on the strategies employed to avoid detection. Some identifiers indicating a possible money-laundering scheme are: lack of identification, money wired to new locations, customer closes account after wiring or transferring copious amounts of money, executed out-of-the-ordinary business transactions, executed transactions involving the customer’s own business or occupation, and executed transactions falling just below the threshold trigger requiring the financial institution to file a report.

Money laundering takes place in three stages: placement, layering, and integration. In the placement stage, the cash proceeds from criminal activity enter the financial system by deposit. During the layering stage, the funds transfer into other accounts, usually offshore financial institutions, thus creating greater distance between the source and origin of the funds and its current location. Legitimate purchases help funnel the money back into the economy during the integration stage, the final stage.

Complicating all this is for the investigator is virtual currency. Virtual currency, unlike traditional forms of money, does not leave a clear audit trail for forensic accountants to trace and investigate. Cases involving the use of virtual currency, i.e. Bitcoins and several rival currencies, create anonymity for the perpetrator and create obstacles for investigators. Bitcoins have no physical form and provide a unique opportunity for terrorists to launder money across international borders without detection by law enforcement or government agencies. Bitcoins are long strings of numbers and letters linked by mathematical encryption algorithms. A consumer uses a mobile phone or computer to create an online wallet with one or more Bitcoin addresses before commencing electronic transactions. Bitcoins may also be used to make legitimate purchases through various, established online retailers.

Current international anti-money laundering laws aid in fighting the war against terrorist financing; however, international laws require actual cash shipments between countries and criminal networks (or at the very least funds transfers between banks). International laws are not applicable to virtual currency transactions, as they do not consist of actual cash shipments. According to the website Bitcoin.org, “Bitcoin uses peer-to-peer technology to operate with no central authority or banks”.

In summary, terrorist organizations find virtual currency to be an effective method for raising illicit funds because, unlike cash transactions, cyber technology offers anonymity with less regulatory oversight. Due to the anonymity factor, Bitcoins are an innovative and convenient way for terrorists to launder money and sell illegal goods. Virtual currencies are appealing for terrorist financiers since funds can be swiftly sent across borders in a secure, cheap, and highly secretive manner. The obscurity of Bitcoin allows international funding sources to conduct exchanges without a trace of evidence. This co-mingling effect is like traditional money laundering but without the regulatory oversight. Government and law enforcement agencies must, as a result, be able to share information with public regulators when they become suspicious of terrorist financing.

Forensic accounting technology is most beneficial when used in conjunction with the analysis tools of law enforcement agencies to predict and analyze future terrorist activity. Even though some of the tools in a forensic accountant’s arsenal are useful in tracking terrorist funds, the ability to identify conceivable terrorist threats is limited. To identify the future activities of terrorist groups, forensic accountants, and law enforcement agencies should cooperate with one another by mutually incorporating the analytical tools utilized by each. Agencies and government officials should become familiar with virtual currency like Bitcoins. Because of the anonymity and lack of regulatory oversight, virtual currency offers terrorist groups a useful means to finance illicit activities on an international scale. In the face of the challenge, new governmental entities may be needed to tie together all the financial forensics efforts of the different stake holder organizations so that information sharing is not compartmentalized.

Financing in the Dark

money-laundering_1A reader of our last blog post on risk assessment, a CFE employed as an internal auditor by a large overseas financial services firm, has been asked, (in light of the Panama Papers), and as a member of an evaluation team, to perform a review of the controls comprising his company’s anti-money laundering program.  I thought his various questions about ACFE guidance on money laundering might furnish interesting matter for a blog post.  The ACFE has long identified money laundering, including terrorist financing, as a global problem.

Due to government concerns globally, laws have been enacted in countries such as the United States (the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), Canada (Proceeds of Crime, Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act), and Australia (Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act, 2006) to combat money laundering and financing of terrorist activities. Such legislation embodies recommendations from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a Paris-based intergovernmental body formed in 1989 by the Group of Seven industrialized nations. As a result, financial institutions in many countries have taken initiatives to implement appropriate policies and infrastructure for ensuring compliance with applicable money laundering requirements and practices. One such step has been to implement anti -money laundering/ counter-terrorist financing programs based on FATF recommendations.  Our reader’s company is to be commended for undertaking the review since independent testing by knowledgeable assurance professionals (including CFE’s) is a critical component in ensuring existing anti-money laundering programs remain robust and fully aligned with regulatory requirements. The testing of these programs should be cohesive and integrated and include a well-defined strategy that takes a risk-based, enterprise wide perspective.

According to the ACFE, an effective anti-money laundering program includes:

–Appointment of a senior officer responsible for ensuring risks are understood, addressed, and mitigated enterprise-wide;
–Development of formal policies, procedures, and controls that are aligned with Federal and local regulations;
–Implementation of a risk-based approach for identifying risks by client, geography, product, and delivery channels;
–Implementation of a program of dynamic rules-based transaction monitoring for purposes of identifying and reporting suspicious activities;
–Implementation of training programs customized to specific functions and activities;
–Independent, periodic testing of the program.

The ACFE stresses that to be successful it’s necessary that the review team understand the organization’s products and delivery channels as well as its types of clients and their geographic location(s). It’s also necessary to understand the company’s organizational structure, infrastructure, policies, procedures, and controls for mitigating money laundering and terrorist financing risks. Also as part of the audit strategy, auditors should list all anti-money laundering regulatory requirements in the countries in which the organization does business. Once these components are clearly defined and understood, a risk profile can be developed (using the interviewing strategy featured in our last post) to ascertain risk levels and enable the creation of appropriate audit programs, staffing, and overall management of the review assignment. Needless to say, the audit strategy should always be formally approved by the organization’s chief audit executive.

The temptation to use boilerplate or template audit programs should be minimized by the development of tailored audit programs fitted to the specific nature of the business process being audited. One of the biggest challenges in developing such audit programs for money laundering is determining appropriate sampling methodologies for performing the required testing and validation. Inappropriate sampling will lead to incorrect and unsupportable conclusions. Sampling criteria and attributes must be defined clearly and be consistent with audit objectives. Once again, the audit manager should approve the sampling methodology before execution.

Our reader’s audit team will need to verify compliance with local regulations, which is not an easy task due to the high transaction volumes characteristic of industries like his. However, in most financial organizations, transaction-based processes must be automated to work and queries can be developed to create exception reports where deviations from expected outcomes exist. Out reader asked for examples of such automated exception reports and some common ones recommended by the ACFE are:

–Cash deposits of US $10,000 or greater where the required regulatory reporting has not been completed. (This threshold applies to Canada and the United States and may vary in other countries);
–Transactions with countries where trade sanctions exist;
–Industry codes listing clients in high risk industries to assess the level of enhanced due diligence performed;
–List of employees who have not completed required anti-money laundering training;
–List of clients with Post Office box addresses;
–List of clients with missing Taxpayer Identification Numbers;
–List of wire transfers from accounts owned by governments into accounts of private investment companies and politically exposed persons;
–Validating that “know your client” and customer identification requirements are compliant with local regulatory requirements;
–Validating that enhanced due diligence is performed on high-risk businesses.

Business culture has traditionally revolved around management of risks relative to sales, markets, economic trends, and reputation. Only relatively recently has regulatory risk as it relates to money laundering requirements received more intense scrutiny. Regulators have adopted a zero tolerance position, as evidenced by penalties against financial institutions for noncompliance with the ever growing body of legislation.  Financial institutions like our reader’s are considered an integral defense in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. It’s thus imperative that these organizations implement effective independent testing programs to assess the quality of controls relative to their anti-money laundering programs.  Sound independent testing by assurance professionals who have in-depth knowledge of fraud and regulation, as well as of risks, controls, and business processes in general is considered a key control within any organization. Fraud risk assessment review work of the anti-money launder business process provides management with the necessary intelligence for proactively managing deficiencies and ensuring that a well-aligned top-to-bottom control environment with appropriate resources and infrastructure is in place for mitigating money laundering risk.

Because fraudsters and criminals are creative and money laundering methods and techniques change constantly in response to evolving countermeasures, a useful reference for CFE’s and for auditors of all kinds is always the ACFE which provides live seminars and on-line training insights into emerging money laundering related threats as well as on-going suggestions for new areas for investigation and testing.