Anti Money Laundering (AML) Definition: Its History and How It Works

Anti Money Laundering (AML)

Investopedia / Julie Bang

What Is Anti Money Laundering (AML)?

Anti money laundering (AML) refers to the web of laws, regulations, and procedures aimed at uncovering efforts to disguise illicit funds as legitimate income. Money laundering seeks to conceal crimes ranging from small-time tax evasion and drug trafficking to public corruption and the financing of groups designated as terrorist organizations.

AML legislation was a response to the growth of the financial industry, the lifting of international capital controls and the growing ease of conducting complex chains of financial transactions.

A high-level United Nations panel has estimated annual money laundering flows at $1.6 trillion, accounting for 2.7% of global GDP in 2020.

Key Takeaways

  • Anti Money Laundering (AML) efforts seek to make it harder to hide profits from crime.
  • Criminals use money laundering to make illicit funds appear to have a legitimate origin.
  • AML regulations require financial institutions to develop sophisticated customer due diligence plans to assess money laundering risks and detect suspicious transactions.
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What's Anti-Money Laundering?

Understanding Anti Money Laundering (AML)

AML regulations in the U.S. have expanded from the 1970 Bank Secrecy Act's requirement that banks report cash deposits of more than $10,000 to a complex regulatory framework requiring financial institutions to conduct due diligence on customers and to seek out and report suspicious transactions. The European Union and other jurisdictions have adopted similar measures.

Know Your Customer

For banks, compliance starts with verifying the identity of new clients, a process sometimes called Know Your Customer (KYC). In addition to establishing the customer's identity, banks are required to understand the nature of a client's activity and verify deposited funds are from a legitimate source.

The KYC process also requires banks and brokers to screen new customers against lists of crime suspects, individuals and companies under economic sanctions, and "politically exposed persons"—foreign public officials, their family members and close associates.

Money laundering can be divided into three steps:

  • Deposit of illicit funds into the financial system
  • Transactions designed to conceal the illicit origin of the funds, known as "layering"
  • Use of laundered funds to acquire real estate, financial instruments or commercial investments

The KYC process aims to stop such schemes at the first deposit window.

Customer Due Diligence

Customer due diligence is integral to the KYC process, for example by ensuring the information a potential customer provides is accurate and legitimate. But it is also a constant process extending to customers old and new, and their transactions.

Customer due diligence requires ongoing assessment of the risk of money laundering posed by each client and the use of that risk-based approach to conduct closer due diligence for those identified as higher non-compliance risks. That includes identifying customers as they are added to sanctions and other AML lists.

According to the U.S. Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the four core requirements of customer due diligence in the U.S. are:

  • Identifying and verifying the customer's identity
  • Identifying and verifying the identity of beneficial owners with a stake of 25% or more in a company opening an account
  • Understanding the nature and purpose of customer relationships to develop customer risk profiles
  • Conducting ongoing monitoring to identify and report suspicious transactions and update customer information 

Customer due diligence seeks to detect money laundering strategies including layering and structuring, also known as "smurfing"—the breaking up of large money laundering transactions into smaller ones to evade reporting limits and avoid scrutiny.

One rule in place to foil layering is the AML holding period, which requires deposits to remain in an account for a minimum of five trading days before they can be transferred elsewhere.

Financial institutions are required to develop and implement a written AML compliance policy, which much be approved in writing by a member of senior management and overseen by a designated AML compliance officer. These programs must specify "risk-based procedures for conducting ongoing customer due diligence" and conduct "ongoing monitoring to identify and report suspicious transactions."

Some AML requirements apply to individuals as well as financial institutions. Notably, U.S. residents are required to report receipts of more than $10,000 in cash to the Internal Revenue Service on IRS Form 8300. The requirement extends to multiple related payments within 24 hours or multiple related transactions within 12 months totaling more than $10,000.

History of Anti Money Laundering

Efforts to police illicit gains have a history stretching back centuries, while the term "money laundering" is only about 100 years old and in wide use for less than 50.

The first major piece of U.S. AML legislation was the 1970 Bank Secrecy Act, passed in part to thwart organized crime. In addition to requiring banks to report cash deposits of more than $10,000, the legislation also required banks to identify individuals conducting transactions and to maintain records of transactions. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Bank Secrecy Act's constitutionality in 1974, the same year "money laundering" entered wide use amid the Watergate scandal.

Additional legislation passed in the 1980s amid increased efforts to fight drug trafficking, in the 1990s to expand financial monitoring and in the 2000s to cut off funding for terrorist organizations.

Anti-money laundering assumed greater global prominence in 1989, when a group of countries and international organizations formed the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Its mission is to devise international standards to prevent money laundering and promote their adoption. In October 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, FATF expanded its mandate to include combating terrorist financing.

Another important organization in the fight against money laundering is the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Like the FATF, the IMF has pressed its member countries to comply with international standards to thwart terrorist financing.

The United Nations included AML provisions in its 1998 Vienna Convention addressing drug trafficking, the 2001 Palermo Convention against international organized crime and the 2005 Merida Convention against corruption.

The Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020, passed in early 2021, was the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. AML regulations since the Patriot Act of 2001. The 2021 legislation included the Corporate Transparency Act, which made it harder to use shell companies to evade anti-money laundering and economic sanctions measures.

The legislation also subjected cryptocurrency exchanges as well as arts and antiquities dealers to the same customer due diligence requirements as financial institutions.

What Are Some Ways That Money Is Laundered?

Money launderers often funnel illicit funds through associates' cash-generating businesses, or by inflating invoices in shell company transactions. Layering transactions are money transfers designed to disguise the source of illicit funds. Structuring, or smurfing, refers to the practice of breaking up a large transfer into smaller ones to evade reporting limits and AML scrutiny.

Can Money Laundering Be Stopped?

Given estimated annual flows approaching 3% of global economic output, increasingly aggressive AML enforcement can at best aim to contain money laundering rather than stop it entirely. Money launderers never seem to run short of money or accomplices, though AML measures certainly make their lives harder.

What's the Difference Between AML, CDD and KYC?

Anti-money laundering (AML) is the broad category of the laws, rules and procedures aimed at deterring money laundering, while customer due diligence (CDD) describes the scrutiny financial institutions (and others) are required to perform to thwart, identify and report violations. Know your client (KYC) rules apply customer due diligence to the task of screening and verifying prospective clients.

Article Sources
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  2. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. "Tax Abuse, Money Laundering and Corruption Plague Global Finance."

  3. U.S. Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. "History of Anti-Money Laundering Laws."

  4. U.S. Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. "BSA Timeline."

  5. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. "Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) & Related Regulations."

  6. IBA Anti Money Laundering Forum. "History of the European Union Anti-Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism Directives."

  7. Financial Action Task Force. "Countries."

  8. SWIFT. "What Does KYC Mean?"

  9. SWIFT. "The KYC Process Explained."

  10. Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council. "Politically Exposed Persons."

  11. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "Money Laundering."

  12. SWIFT. "What Is Customer Due Diligence (CDD)?"

  13. U.S. Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. "Information on Complying with the Customer Due Diligence (CDD) Final Rule."

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  15. FINRA. "Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) Regarding Anti-Money Laundering (AML)."

  16. Internal Revenue Service. "Form 8300-Report of Cash Payments Over $10,000 Received in a Trade or Business."

  17. Internal Revenue Service. "Cash Payment Report Helps Government Combat Money Laundering."

  18. Inter-American Observatory on Drugs. "Changing Paradigms on Money Laundering," Page 1. 

  19. Jumio. "The Bank Secrecy Act Turns 50: Five Decades of Anti-Money Laundering in the U.S."

  20. The New York Times. "An Explanation: How Money That Financed Watergate Was Raised and Distributed."

  21. Financial Action Task Force. "What Do We Do."

  22. International Monetary Fund. "IMF and the Fight Against Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism."

  23. The National Law Review. "The Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020: Congress Enacts the Most Sweeping AML Legislation Since Passage of the USA PATRIOT Act."

  24. U.S. Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. "FinCEN Issues Proposed Rule for Beneficial Ownership Reporting to Counter Illicit Finance and Increase Transparency."

  25. U.S. Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. "FinCEN Informs Financial Institutions of Efforts Related to Trade in Antiquities and Art," Pages 1-2.

  26. JD Supra. "FinCEN Crypto & Ransomware Guidance: Will 2022 Bring More Changes?"

  27. Institute of International Banking Law and Practice. "Trade Based Money Laundering – A Primer."

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