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Laundering money into euros

  • 2001-12-20
  • Leah Bower
RIGA - Dirty money? Looking for a quick way to launder it into the new euro being introduced Jan. 1, 2002?

Packing a suitcase full of cash and taking a quick jaunt to Latvia may be the answer.

Because there is no limit to the amount of cash that can be transported across Latvia's borders, the country may face a flood of people looking to change their ill-gotten marks, francs and lire into euros, according to the country's financial intelligence unit.

"In Latvia you can freely go in or out with any sum of cash without declaring," said Viesturs Burkans, head of the unit. "This is one of the methods of moving dirty money."

There have already been several cases of unusually high amounts of European Union cash being smuggled into Estonia - where travelers are required to declare more than 1,000 Deutsche marks at the border - according to the Latvian National Customs Service.

In one case, someone tried to bring 245,000 Deutsche marks into Estonia and 25,000 Deutsche marks were discovered in a second case, said Kalvis Vitolins, director of the customs service.

Not only do amounts over 1,000 Deutsche marks have to be declared on the Estonian border, but people carrying more than 25,000 Deutsche marks must have documents explaining the origin of the cash.

But tracking similar incidents on the Latvian border was almost impossible, Burkans said, since there was no regulation on declaring money.

"It's difficult to say how much money, if any, is being laundered. It's maybe yes, maybe no," he said. "The financial intelligence unit has very little information about cash movement across borders."

Border control officials can, however, report unusual amounts of cash they find to the unit, said Dita Klavina, spokeswoman for the Latvian State Revenue Service.

"So far, no cases of large amounts of cash being brought across the border have been detected in Latvia," she added.

And once the money is in the country, it is almost impossible for banks to catch wind of possible laundering, provided the criminals abide by transaction rules.

Following both Latvian law and standard international regulations, Parex bank - the country's largest financial institution - requires a passport or other identification for any exchange over $10,000.

"It is quite controlled," said Christa Rubstein, a marketing specialist at Parex. "We don't want this to happen through our organization. We're in close contact with regulatory bodies."

In fact Latvian banks are the most diligent body about reporting money laundering crimes, Burkans said, accounting for notifying the unit of 80 percent of financial crimes in 2001.

Combating criminals intent on exchanging their profits into euros will require closing the loophole in the law that allows cash to flow freely across the border.

"(Border declarations) are a recommendation of the international Financial Action Task Force," Burkans said. "We don't have the power to initiate legislation - we can only initiate discussion."

Two attempts to alter the legislation in the past five years have failed in the Parliament.