13 Examples of Money Laundering

Money laundering is a significant global issue that involves disguising the origins of illegally obtained money so that it appears to be from legitimate sources. It is a critical concern for governments, financial institutions, and law enforcement agencies worldwide. This article explores some of the most common examples of money laundering techniques used by criminals to clean their dirty money.

1. Smurfing

Smurfing, also known as structuring, involves breaking down large amounts of cash into smaller, less suspicious sums. These smaller amounts are then deposited into various bank accounts to avoid triggering reporting requirements. For example, instead of depositing $50,000 in one go, a smurf might deposit $9,000 into five different accounts over several days. This technique aims to avoid detection by financial authorities who monitor large cash transactions.

2. Shell Companies

Shell companies are businesses that exist only on paper with no real operations. Criminals use these entities to move and hide illicit funds. By creating complex layers of transactions through various shell companies, money launderers can obscure the true source of their money. These companies can be set up in multiple jurisdictions, making it even more challenging for authorities to trace the funds.

3. Trade-Based Money Laundering

Trade-based money laundering involves using trade transactions to disguise the origins of illicit money. This can be done through over-invoicing, under-invoicing, or multiple invoicing of goods and services. For example, a company might export goods at inflated prices to a foreign subsidiary. The excess payment is then funneled back to the launderer, appearing as legitimate trade revenue. Conversely, under-invoicing allows importers to pay less in customs duties while siphoning off the difference to offshore accounts.

4. Real Estate Laundering

Investing in real estate is a popular method for laundering money. Criminals purchase properties using illicit funds and then sell them to legitimate buyers. The proceeds from these sales appear clean. Real estate transactions can involve large sums of money, making it easier to launder significant amounts at once. Moreover, the real estate market’s relative stability and potential for high returns make it an attractive option for money launderers.

5. Casinos and Gambling

Casinos provide an excellent opportunity for money laundering due to the large volumes of cash that flow through them daily. Criminals can buy casino chips with dirty money, gamble minimally, and then cash out the remaining chips. The casino provides them with a check or wire transfer, making it appear as though the money came from legitimate winnings. Online gambling platforms also pose a significant risk for money laundering, as transactions can be more challenging to trace.

6. Cash-Intensive Businesses

Businesses that primarily deal in cash, such as restaurants, bars, and car washes, are often used for money laundering. Criminals can mix illegal funds with legitimate business income, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. For instance, a restaurant might inflate its daily sales figures to include laundered money. This method relies on the high volume of cash transactions typical in such businesses, reducing the likelihood of detection.

7. Hawala Networks

Hawala is an informal value transfer system traditionally used in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. It operates outside conventional banking systems, relying on a network of trusted brokers. A person in one country gives money to a hawala broker, who then contacts a counterpart in another country to release an equivalent amount to the intended recipient. This method leaves little to no paper trail, making it difficult for authorities to track the flow of funds.

8. Bulk Cash Smuggling

Despite the increasing use of digital methods, physical bulk cash smuggling remains a common form of money laundering. This method involves physically transporting large amounts of cash across borders. Criminals might hide cash in luggage, vehicles, or even courier it through unsuspecting individuals. Once the cash reaches its destination, it can be deposited into banks or used in various money laundering schemes.

9. Cryptocurrencies

The rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin has provided money launderers with new opportunities. Cryptocurrencies offer a degree of anonymity and operate outside traditional financial systems. Criminals can use these digital currencies to move and hide funds quickly and discreetly. They might use multiple transactions, mixing services, and exchanges to obscure the money trail. Although regulatory bodies are catching up, the rapidly evolving nature of the crypto space poses ongoing challenges.

10. Layering through Financial Instruments

Layering is the second stage of the money laundering process, involving complex layers of financial transactions to obscure the money’s origins. Criminals may use financial instruments like bonds, stocks, and derivatives to layer illicit funds. For instance, they might purchase high-value assets, hold them for a short period, and then sell them. The proceeds from these sales can appear legitimate, as they come from seemingly legitimate financial transactions.

11. Offshore Accounts

Offshore accounts in tax havens with strict banking secrecy laws are a favorite tool for money launderers. These jurisdictions often provide anonymity and limited oversight, making it difficult for authorities to track funds. Criminals can move money into offshore accounts and then transfer it back into the financial system through various channels, further complicating the money trail.

12. Credit Card Laundering

Also known as factoring, credit card laundering involves using merchant accounts to process illegal transactions. Criminals set up fake businesses or collude with existing ones to run illicit credit card transactions through legitimate merchant accounts. The funds from these transactions are then transferred to the criminals, appearing as legitimate business income.

13. False Invoicing

False invoicing involves creating fake invoices for goods or services that were never provided. This method allows criminals to justify large transfers of money as payments for these non-existent goods or services. It can be done within a single country or across borders, further complicating the detection process.


Money laundering is a complex and evolving crime that poses significant challenges to law enforcement and regulatory bodies worldwide. The methods discussed here represent some of the most common techniques used by criminals to clean their dirty money. As financial systems and technologies continue to develop, so too will the tactics employed by money launderers. Vigilance, robust regulatory frameworks, and international cooperation are essential in the ongoing fight against money laundering.


  1. Financial Action Task Force (FATF). (2020). Money Laundering. Retrieved from FATF.
  2. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (2021). Money-Laundering and Globalization. Retrieved from UNODC.
  3. International Monetary Fund (IMF). (2019). The IMF and the Fight Against Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism. Retrieved from IMF.