The perils of virtual money

Users in the mushrooming world of digital currencies were in for a shock when Liberty Reserve was accused of laundering operations amounting to $6 billion.

By Jun 3, 2013 5:42PM

By Zacks Equity Research

“If Al Capone were alive today, this is how he would be hiding his money," said U.S. prosecutors about Liberty Reserve, the popular digital currency site.

Liberty Reserve described itself as the “oldest, safest and most popular payment processor... serving millions all around a world." However, the users in the mushrooming world of digital currencies were shocked on Friday, when Liberty was indicted  by U.S. regulators on charges of money-laundering operations amounting to $6 billion.

Liberty: a playground for criminals

Liberty did not process cash payments made by clients directly. Rather, third party exchangers were employed to credit or debit the accounts of its clientele -- so that no sign remained of their banking and other personal information. This provided the leeway for criminal proceeds from a variety of frauds, including credit card scams -- as well as narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and child pornography.

Image: Jail (© Darrin Klimek/Getty Images/Getty Images)Regulators charged Liberty with laundering billions of dollars from about 55 million transactions involving millions of clients all over the world, 200,000 from the U.S.

Seven people, including founder Arthur Budovsky, were charged by the U.S. regulatory body. Budovsky is no stranger to illegal money laundering activities. In 2006, he was convicted of breaching money transmission guidelines associated with E-Gold. In 2011, he surrendered his U.S. citizenship and built a new financial network in Costa Rica.

But Budovsky ran out of luck in that country, as well -- when his company was charged for violating money laundering rules in 2011. However, Costa Rican regulators were duped by a false computer portal which provided fake data. Meanwhile, Liberty continued to run its operations through subsidiary companies in Malaysia, Russia, Nigeria, Cyprus, Hong Kong and Australia.

No Liberty, no crime?  

Bitcoin, Litecoin and Namecoin are the main virtual currencies that accept real currency and convert it to electronic currency.

In May, a unit of Bitcoin had a run-in with the federal authorities. The regulators seized accounts of Mutum Sigillum, a mediator of Mt. Gox -- the Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange, having almost 80% of the market share. The Fed accused Mutum Sigillum of not being appropriately registered as a money transmitter with the Treasury Department.

Bitcoin is, however, not in the same shaky ground as Liberty Reserve is. Right from its commencement, Bitcoin was designed to be both undetectable and decentralized. Moreover, it was programmed exclusively to prevent misuse or criminal activities.

Litecoin and Namecoin also use script in their proof-of-work algorithm -- a sequential memory-hard function, which makes these foolproof and safer than Liberty.

Authorities cracking the whip

The worldwide use of virtual currency has left regulators with a nagging headache thanks to the risky dealings prompted by it. In March, the Federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued regulations for virtual currencies, entailing them to register with the government. This means that every source of virtual currency has to worry about conformity to certain standard laws.

Moreover, regulatory bodies are investing heavily in their cybercrime software and equipment. Such measures have made it harder for money-laundering operations to transfer criminal proceeds without being traced.

This has resulted in noticeable changes in the digital currency business. Companies like Perfect Money and WebMoney are no longer accepting U.S. customers. Further, some organizations are steering clear of Bitcoin exchanges. Certain consumer Internet companies such as Facebook (FB), eBay (EBAY), Amazon (AMZN) and Netflix (NFLX), which use virtual money, could be hit by the regulations.

The overwhelming success of digital currency has been the foundation of the fast growing online money transmission business. With online games as well as dating and shopping sites gaining popularity, virtual currency has also been well received. The Liberty clear-out, however, will have prosecutors all over the world keep a watchful eye on this booming business.

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Jun 4, 2013 8:44AM
I say, "let's get us some BitCoins"....uh huh...
Jun 4, 2013 12:33AM
Money-laundering equals cleaning money which should be a good thing - no?
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