Investigators flush out money laundering to protect banks, consumers

By Heather Sullivan - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - We usually only hear about money laundering in big cases like drug trafficking, mafia crimes, or ponzi schemes. But it's actually going on all around you. It can even come right through your bank account.

Money laundering used to be funneling money from crimes through business fronts to make the money look legitimate. Now money laundering is now defined as any financial activity that comes from an illegal act.

Joe Soniat wanted to be a crime fighter so he learned to follow the money. "Big money transactions, things that don't fit," he said.

He roots out attempts at money laundering at Union First Market Bank. Most banks have Joe's. And the Richmond Federal Reserve, which oversees banks, have people like Elaine Yancey.

Explained Yancey, "Something that is fueling the money laundering right now is the drug trafficking, the illegal narcotics transactions. The criminals have to find a way to convert those funds into legitimate funds."

The crooks are getting more sophisticated. Forget fake business fronts. Now they use electronic bank transactions, wire money from one bank to another one out of the country, cashier's checks, and buying up stored value cards. Stored value cards are like prepaid debit cards, but they're anonymous. The crooks send them overseas, sell or use them, good as cash.

"If a financial institution sells stored value cards, we would expect financial institutions to have controls where they monitor the sales of those cards and put limits on say how many cards can be purchased per day," Yancey said.

And crooks go phishing, sending those scam emails that look like they're from real banks, asking for your account information.

"Sometimes customers get the checks in or a wire transfer into their account that they weren't sure where they came from or someone gets into their computer and sends a wire that they didn't send," Soniat said.

Joe and Elaine look for big money transactions, but money laundering is not easy to spot.

"Sometimes you get an aha moment. It feels good when you see it and sometimes its really hard to detect," Soniat said.

But they're constantly looking, because the crime is constantly happening. And it can cost you and your bank big.

Joe and Elaine just recently formed a Richmond chapter of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists because there are more of these investigators in Richmond than in Washington, D.C. The group educates its members on the crooks' latest trends.

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