This Is The Unusual Money Laundering Method Of ‘Cuckoo Smurfing’Commonwealth Bank Australia was accused of 53,700 breaches of money laundering laws by Australia’s financial intelligence and regulatory agency, AUSTRAC, on Thursday — that much you’ve probably already heard.
AUSTRAC alleges Commbank seriously and systematically breached compliance of Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Counter-Terrorism Financing (CTF) laws using a technique known as “cuckoo smurfing”.Yes that’s an actual name for an actual money laundering method and it’s as unusual and sophisticated as it seems. So what is it exactly and how does it work? HuffPost Australia spoke to Gary Hughes, a New Zealand independent barrister, regulatory lawyer and expert in AML and financial crimes, who said the term ‘cuckoo smurfing’ first needs to be broken down into the processes that help it work.
StructuringIn Australia, banks are obliged by the national regulator, AUSTRAC, to provide threshold transaction reports for any cash transfers of $10,000 or more. According to Hughes, ‘structuring’ is the money laundering process by which individuals or criminal syndicates are able to bypass this recognition of money transfers by breaking up cash amounts into sums lower than the threshold so that they’re not picked up by banks and therefore reported. “In Australia, cash amounts over $10,000 need to be reported,” he told HuffPost Australia. “Criminals aren’t entirely silly — they know this, so they often will try to get around that threshold by putting a whole lot of little amounts of just under, or nearly enough, to the threshold but below the trigger point where a bank would have to report it. “Structuring can take different ways [of being executed] — for example, you could go around and individually deposit those small amounts at different locations or ATMs or bank branches and do the manual labour yourself.” But there’s more to it than that.
SmurfingWhile one individual can do the hard work themselves to deposit illegal monies, Hughes said that when that process is outsourced to multiple people, perhaps in a criminal syndicate or within the network of a single criminal, that is known as ‘smurfing’. “You might engage a whole bunch of mates and get them to do the dirty work for you,” he said. “Smurfing is a form of structuring where you get other people who are each going around to make deposits near to, or under, the $10,000 threshold and that makes it harder to detect that the structuring is going on because it looks like a bunch of different individuals all putting money into the system. “It can be an organisation, a group, it can often be what looks like a fairly legitimate business doing something else.” So, where does the name come from? You guessed it — the little blue men from the famed TV program. In that program, the popular cartoon characters would often replace everyday verbs with the word “smurf” as a way to conceal an individual’s real intentions — in this case, to smurf is to deal with illegal monies via more than one person.
So, what about cuckoo smurfing?Having already explained the idea of smurfing, Hughes said the next step is to look at the notion of being a ‘cuckoo’ in relation to illegal money laundering. The term is connected to the bird itself and its actions when it comes to nesting time. “The idea of cuckoo does go back to the bird — it takes its eggs and goes and uses the nests of other birds,” Hughes said. Essentially, cuckoo birds piggy-back their own eggs in the nests of other birds so that they can escape the birthing period. How does that relate to money laundering? Hughes told HuffPost Australia the ‘cuckoo smurfing’ technique is a sophisticated combination of structuring and smurfing, and is based on the use of an unwitting third-party individual and their bank account or identification details. “Cuckoo smurfing is a variation that basically involves using other third parties who might not know that they are being used in that way,” he said. “Typically, it will involve somebody who might have a bank account or a deposit facility or could be working through a money transfer arrangement.”
How does it happen?Hughes said the cuckoo smurfing process requires two or more concurrent transactions to be occurring — one legitimate transfer from an unwitting customer of a bank looking to move money into or out of Australia, and other transfers of illegal monies that are made using the details of the third person so that it appears to be coming from them and not a criminal. “Let’s say you’ve got a customer who wants to legitimately send some money overseas and they want to make a money transfer, so they need to put their legitimate money into the system with a bank,” he said. “Let’s say their details were stolen or somehow made available to somebody else — you might have a criminal syndicate or one person who also wants to [transfer] some money but they want to use that first person’s account or piggy-back on that initial transaction to send some of their own criminal funds along with the other person’s legitimate money into or out of Australia. “If [a criminal] had [those details] then you might have one transaction being placed which is a legitimate one and you might have the criminal saying, ‘we’re going to use that account and put through one or two more transactions in that person’s name using their details between Australia and this other country and we’re going to send it to a different beneficiary, which is another account that we control overseas using their name,’. “So, you might have three transactions going through and they’re arranged so that they’re under the threshold for detection, none of those on their own would be picked up, and if they were it’d look like the innocent person’s account transactions going through and there’s no reason to suspect them of criminal activity.” In other words, criminals or illegal syndicates organise cash sums of up to $10,000 to be wired in or out of Australia using the account details they have acquired of a third, unwitting individual. Banks never pick it up to be reported to a regulator because the sums are below the threshold and the identity of the criminal is never known because all the transfers appear to be coming from the third person.
How do people get away with it?Hughes told HuffPost Australia the entire idea of money laundering relies on the sophisticated disguise of the movement of funds between criminal networks — something that is made even more difficult to detect if a third person’s identity is used to cover transactions. “A key element of money laundering is being able to disguise what you’re doing. A sophisticated way of doing that is to use other people’s details or ID or bank account without them knowing,” he said. “If somebody has your details, they will hurriedly put through some transactions in the hope that you don’t pick it up until you get a statement a few weeks later. They’re hoping that by then the money’s been spent or collected and it’s gone. “So, [innocent customers] unwittingly become part of your money laundering scheme. They are the person being used by the cuckoo and are being used to get money through the system in a way that can’t be detected.”
How common is it?While a 2011 AUSTRAC report on money laundering in Australia labelled the crime as a “critical risk” to the country, Hughes told HuffPost Australia the cuckoo smurfing technique is “quite an unusual and sophisticated” method that doesn’t pop up too often, despite the term being coined over a decade ago. “It’s not new but it is quite rare — it doesn’t come up all the time, it’s quite an unusual and sophisticated way of money laundering,” he said. “It’s going to take more sophistication than your average [crime]. Typically, that would involve quite a sophisticated set of people, probably those who know how the banks work and know the loopholes in the system. “Often these days [criminal syndicates] will also have a cyber criminal or IT hacker or someway where they’ve got somebody else’s details without them knowing. “Because it’s sophisticated and cleverly disguised this is a real challenge for a bank to pick up. Having said that they have full legal obligations under the anti-money laundering regime, so most banks should be on the lookout for it.”
Gary Hughes interviewed by Huffington Post about the money laundering method of ‘Cuckoo Smurfing’