Cash is still king: Criminals prefer cash for money laundering

8 July 2015

In spite of the rapidly changing face of criminality and the rise of cybercrime, money laundering methods detected by law enforcement remain overwhelmingly traditional. Europol’s latest strategic report, ‘Why is cash still king?’, shows that while cash is slowly falling out of favour with consumers, it is still one of the preferred methods used to launder the proceeds of crime.

Almost all crime types make use of cash to facilitate money laundering at some stage, not only traditional crimes which generate cash profits, but also threats now arising from new technologies such as virtual currencies, where cash is used as an instrument to disguise the criminal origin of proceeds.

In the EU, the use of cash is the main reason triggering suspicious transaction reports within the financial system, accounting for more than 30% of all reports. Reports on detections of suspicious physical cash movements represent around one third of all contributions to Europol in the area of money laundering.

Although the use of cash for payments has experienced a moderate decline in the EU, the demand for high denomination notes not commonly used for payments, such as the EUR 500 note, has been sustained. The EUR 500 note alone accounts for over 30% of the value of all banknotes in circulation (1). This raises questions about the purpose for which they are being used and whether this could be linked to criminal activity, which should be further explored.

Linking cash to criminal activities remains a key challenge for law enforcement.  “The use of cash by criminals remains one of the most significant barriers to successful investigations and prosecution,” says Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol. “It is a threat that has not received sufficient international attention or legislative solutions. A fragmented enforcement approach at national and international level, and the differing regulatory frameworks across the EU Member States, are widely exploited by criminals, who adapt their methods and routes to take advantage of these loopholes. Stepping up efforts to increase international cooperation and information exchange, and establishing a more harmonised approach among EU Member States concerning cash movements within the EU, are crucial if we are to tackle these criminal activities.”

One of the prevalent methods used by criminals to launder profits remains physical cash smuggling. It is difficult to assess the scale of this criminal activity, but highly conservative estimates based on records received by Europol show that EUR 1.5 billion in cash is detected and/or seized by EU Member State authorities each year.

The findings of ‘Why is cash still king?’ are reflected in a set of recommendations aimed at providing practical solutions which could assist in preventing the use of cash for criminal purposes as well as enabling investigators to achieve higher rates of successful convictions.

The report is dedicated to Clément Gorrissen and Simon Davis of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), who lost their lives in the line of duty in their devoted efforts to combat criminal finances in troubled areas of the world.

(1) EUR 1 trillion as of end 2014 (Source: European Central Bank).

Download the full report here (pdf)