AML Compliance

Unveiling the Largest Money Laundering Frauds (2023)

Explore the largest money laundering frauds in 2023, their impact on economies, and strategies to combat these crimes.

Editorial Team
May 8, 2024

The fight against financial crime is a constant struggle, with criminals constantly devising new methods to launder illicit funds.

2023 saw some significant busts of large-scale money laundering operations, exposing the evolving tactics used by these networks.

In this article, we explore the most notorious money laundering frauds of 2023, delving into their mechanisms, impacts on the global economy, and the evolving strategies for combating these illicit activities.

What is Money Laundering?

Money laundering is the illegal process of making money obtained from criminal activity appear legitimate. Money launderers use various methods to achieve this, typically involving three stages:

  • Placement: This involves physically getting the dirty money into the financial system. This could be done by breaking large sums into smaller deposits at different banks, or by using businesses like car washes or casinos to mix the criminal cash with legitimate income.
  • Layering: Once the money is in the system, launderers try to distance it from its criminal origins. This often involves complex financial transactions, moving the money through multiple accounts and countries to make it difficult to trace.
  • Integration: At this stage, the laundered money is reintroduced into the economy as though it came from a legitimate source. This could involve using it to invest in real estate, businesses, or luxury goods.

What is Fraud?

Fraud is an act of deception intended to gain something unlawfully or unfairly, often at the expense of another person or entity. It involves dishonesty and the intent to mislead someone for personal benefit.

Here are some common types:

  • Financial Fraud: This involves using deception to steal money or property, such as credit card fraud, identity theft, or embezzlement.
  • Investment Scams: This involves tricking someone into investing in a fake or fraudulent scheme.
  • Insurance Fraud: This involves filing a false or exaggerated insurance claim to receive money illegitimately.
  • Cyber Fraud: This involves using the internet to commit fraud, such as phishing scams or malware attacks that steal personal information.

Largest Money Laundering Frauds (2023)

The year 2023 was a landmark year in terms of money laundering fraud. From the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange being implicated in a scandal to a billion-dollar biofuel tax fraud, the year was rife with audacious schemes and cunning criminals.

Let's take a closer look at these high-profile cases and their implications.

Case 1: The Binance Scandal

The Binance scandal that unfolded in late 2023 involved the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange facing accusations of violating several financial regulations.

Investigators claimed Binance failed to implement proper anti-money laundering (AML) controls. This allegedly allowed criminals to use the platform for illegal activities, with estimates exceeding $100 billion in suspicious transactions.

Binance was accused of facilitating transactions that violated US sanctions, potentially involving countries like Iran and even terrorist groups.

In November 2023, Binance and its founder, Changpeng Zhao, pleaded guilty to various charges. The exchange agreed to pay a hefty fine exceeding $4 billion, while Zhao himself faced a separate penalty and stepped down as CEO.

The Binance scandal fueled discussions around cryptocurrency regulation. It exposed potential vulnerabilities within the crypto industry and the need for stricter AML and compliance measures.

Case 2: The Billion-Dollar Biofuel Tax Fraud

The Billion-Dollar Biofuel Tax Fraud that unfolded between 2010 and 2018 involved a conspiracy to steal from the government by exploiting a tax credit program.

Washakie Renewable Energy supposedly produced biodiesel, a clean fuel alternative. However, the owners allegedly falsified documents to claim they were producing more biodiesel than they were. This allowed them to claim refundable tax credits from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for nonexistent fuel.

To further support the scam, Washakie Renewable Energy reportedly exported used biodiesel and then re-imported it, claiming it as new fuel to justify the tax credit requests.

The IRS estimates they paid out over $511 million in credits to Washakie before the scheme unraveled. The defrauded money reportedly funded a luxurious lifestyle for those involved, including a yacht purchase.

In 2023 all five individuals involved received prison sentences ranging from 6 to 40 years. They were also ordered to pay significant restitution.

Case 3: The OneCoin Cryptocurrency Scheme

OneCoin was a massive fraudulent cryptocurrency scheme, sometimes referred to as a Ponzi or pyramid scheme, that operated from roughly 2014 to 2016.

OneCoin was not a real cryptocurrency. It lacked the technological infrastructure (blockchain) that legitimate cryptocurrencies use and couldn't be mined or traded on exchanges.

OneCoin was sold through a multi-level marketing (MLM) structure. People were encouraged to buy packages supposedly containing "educational materials" on cryptocurrency, but the real focus was on recruiting new members.

As a Ponzi scheme, OneCoin relied on funds from new investors to pay promised returns to earlier investors. This model inevitably collapses when recruitment slows down.

Estimates suggest that investors lost billions of dollars, possibly exceeding $4 billion, in the OneCoin scheme.

Case 4: The Silk Road Dark Web Fraud

Launched in 2011, Silk Road became a notorious online black market accessible through the Tor network. This anonymity allowed users to buy and sell illegal goods and services, including drugs, weapons, and stolen data.

Bitcoin, a decentralized and anonymous cryptocurrency, was the primary payment method on Silk Road. The perpetrators exploited the anonymity of the cryptocurrency to launder money, making it nearly impossible for authorities to trace.

James Zhong pled guilty in 2022 to unlawfully obtaining over 50,000 Bitcoin from the Silk Road dark web internet marketplace. The whereabouts of this massive chunk of missing Bitcoin had ballooned into an over $3.3 billion mystery.

In 2023, Zhong was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and forfeited his Bitcoin. He began his sentence on July 14, 2023. 

Case 5: The Bitcoin Money Laundering Scheme

Ian Freeman's Bitcoin Money Laundering Scheme involved turning illegal proceeds from online scams into cryptocurrency.

The scheme focused on laundering money from romance scams and other internet frauds. Victims, often unaware, sent their money to Freeman's business.

Instead of traditional money transfers, Freeman allegedly converted these funds into Bitcoin through a network of Bitcoin ATMs (kiosks where physical cash can be exchanged for Bitcoin). This conversion aimed to mask the origin of the illegal funds.

He was responsible for laundering over $10 million from romance scams and other internet frauds.

In March 2021, Freeman was charged with money laundering, conspiracy to launder money, operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business, and tax evasion.

In December 2022, a jury found Freeman guilty on all counts. On October 2, 2023, Ian Freeman was sentenced to 96 months in prison, 2 years of supervised release, and a fine of $40,000. He was also ordered to pay restitution totaling $3,502,708.69 to 29 victims of his offense.

Case 6: The FTX Scandal

Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of FTX, a once-booming cryptocurrency exchange, was convicted of a massive fraud in November 2023.

Prosecutors accused Bankman-Fried of diverting billions of dollars in customer funds from FTX to his hedge fund, Alameda Research. These funds were allegedly used for risky investments, personal expenses, and illegal campaign donations.

The indictment claimed Bankman-Fried misled investors and customers regarding FTX's financial health and security of their assets.

In November 2023, after a month-long trial, a jury found Bankman-Fried guilty of eight counts, including wire fraud, securities fraud, and money laundering conspiracy. In March 2024, Bankman-Fried was sentenced to 25 years in prison and ordered to pay $11 billion in forfeiture.

Case 7: Global Investment Fraud Scheme

John Nock was a key figure in a long-running investment fraud scheme that defrauded over a dozen victims out of more than $18 million between 2013 and 2021. The scheme revolved around a company called The Brittingham Group, which presented itself as a legitimate investment firm.

The Brittingham Group lured victims by claiming access to exclusive investment opportunities, particularly involving the fictitious concept of "monetization of foreign bank guarantees." Nock and his associates enticed investors with unrealistic promises of high returns, often exceeding 200-300% within a short period (like 20-30 days). These guarantees were false and designed to pressure victims into investing quickly.

Once they obtained money from victims, the group used a complex web of international bank accounts controlled by others involved in the scheme to launder the stolen funds.

After an FBI and IRS criminal investigation, Nock and his associates were convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, multiple counts of wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Nock also faced additional charges for using victim funds for unrelated personal expenses. In August 2023, Nock was sentenced to 20 years and 10 months in prison for his role in the scheme.

The Impact of Money Laundering Frauds on the Economy

Money laundering fraud has a significant negative impact on economies around the world. Here are some key consequences:

Erosion of Trust and Financial Stability

Money laundering schemes can infiltrate banks and other financial institutions. This erodes public trust in the financial system and discourages legitimate investment

Laundered money entering the system can also distort economic data, making it harder for governments to manage interest rates and fiscal policy effectively.

Distortion of Resources and Growth

Laundered money fuels criminal activities and corruption, diverting resources away from productive sectors of the economy. This can hinder long-term growth and development.

Laundered money can be used to prop up businesses involved in illegal activities, giving them an unfair advantage over legitimate companies.

Global Economic Risks

Large-scale money laundering can lead to sudden and unpredictable shifts in capital flows, destabilizing financial markets.

Combating Money Laundering

Governments and financial institutions around the world are working together to fight money laundering. This includes stricter regulations, better international cooperation, and the use of technology to track suspicious financial activity.

Role of Regulatory Bodies in Preventing Money Laundering

Regulatory bodies play a pivotal role in thwarting money laundering fraud. They establish stringent laws and regulations that financial institutions must adhere to, ensuring a robust defense against illicit activities.

These bodies, such as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) in the U.S., work tirelessly to detect and prevent money laundering, often partnering with law enforcement agencies to bring criminals to justice.

They also enforce compliance through regular audits and inspections. Financial institutions that fail to comply with these regulations face hefty fines and penalties, which serve as a strong deterrent against lax security measures or deliberate complicity in money laundering schemes.

Regulatory bodies also play a crucial role in fostering international cooperation. By sharing intelligence and best practices, regulatory bodies worldwide can collectively strengthen their defenses against this pervasive crime.

Final Thoughts and How Can Help

Money laundering casts a long shadow over the global economy. The cases highlighted expose the breadth and complexity of this crime, from exploiting new technologies like cryptocurrency to reviving old cons like Ponzi schemes. The impact is far-reaching, undermining trust in financial institutions, distorting economic growth, and fueling instability.

With the right tools and a committed approach to compliance, the financial community can hope to stay one step ahead of the launderers, safeguarding the integrity of the global financial system and contributing to a fairer economic future. is a powerful tool that can assist businesses, financial institutions, and individuals in staying compliant with UK sanctions and anti-money laundering regulations. enables users to conduct thorough due diligence, identify potential sanctions violations, and mitigate compliance risks effectively.

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Editorial Team
This article was put together by the expert editorial team.
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