In its recently-published 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that drug trafficking organizations are turning to Bitcoin and other virtual currencies to enable easy transfer of illicit funds internationally. The NDTA is a comprehensive strategic assessment of the threat posed to the United States by domestic and international drug trafficking and the abuse of illicit drugs. The report combines a wide variety of law enforcement reporting and other data to determine which substances and criminal organizations represent the greatest threat to the United States.
The NDTA notes that in order to avoid law enforcement detection and banking regulations, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) employ various strategies to move and launder drug proceeds into, within, and out of the United States. Preferred methods to move and launder illicit proceeds – such as bulk cash smuggling, money value transfer systems, trade-based money laundering, and through the formal banking sector – remain the same as in past years. Emerging as a new money laundering threat, however, are Bitcoin and other virtual currencies because of their “anonymizing nature and ease of use.” Bitcoin is the most common form of payment for drug sales on dark net marketplaces and is emerging as a desirable method to transfer illicit drug proceeds internationally. Bitcoin is the most widely used virtual currency due to its longevity and growing acceptance at legitimate businesses and institutions worldwide.
The NDTA notes that Bitcoin’s widespread popularity in China has now spread to trade-based money launderers operating in that country. Many trade-based money laundering schemes are China-based, and have historically consisted of the purchase by TCOs of large shipments of “made-in-China” goods via wire transfer or bulk cash carrying from the United States to China. The “made-in-China” goods are then shipped to business owners in Mexico and South America, who in turn reimburse the drug trafficking organizations in local currency. Now, many China-based firms manufacturing goods used in such schemes prefer to accept Bitcoin for payment.
The use of Bitcoin in this type of trade-based money laundering scheme no doubt facilitates the money laundering process for TCOs, which currently face scrutiny from U.S. banks whenever they wire money to Chinese manufacturers. In contrast, the NTDA notes that a TCO purchasing Bitcoin through a licensed money service business without raising red flags will face no further scrutiny when transferring the Bitcoin to China. Many TCOs can also buy Bitcoin from individuals selling Bitcoin on the Internet without any MSB license. Many TCOs will thus be able to convert their cash drug proceeds to Bitcoin and buy Chinese goods with no fear of oversight from a formal financial institution.
The NDTA also notes that Bitcoin is increasingly being used by Over-the-Counter (OTC) Bitcoin brokers who conduct high-risk Bitcoin trading consistent with Chinese capital flight and money laundering. These brokers likely use foreign Bitcoin wallet-hosting services and exchanges that do not properly conduct “know your customer” or anti-money laundering monitoring on Bitcoin purchases. OTC Bitcoin brokers primarily attract two types of clients: those who want to use Bitcoin to move their money out of China and those who want to convert large quantities of cash into Bitcoin. Chinese underground banking systems money brokers sell Bitcoin to drug traffickers for cash earned from drug sales in the United States, Australia, and Europe. This drug cash is then sold to Chinese nationals in exchange for Bitcoin the Chinese nationals use to transfer the value of their assets outside of China. The NTDA concludes that the increasing use of OTC Bitcoin brokers, who are capable of transferring millions of dollars in Bitcoin across international borders as part of a capital flight scheme, is expected to continue to intertwine criminal money laundering networks with capital flight.