This somewhat long but informative report from Rachel Maddow last week went nearly unnoticed at the time, but it got my attention because I somehow doubt those who utilized Liberty Reserve's unique money laundering capabilities were limited to drug dealers and international criminals. Though all the details have not yet been released, the scandal already reaches up to Barclays' Bank, one of the UK's most respected institutions.
Liberty Reserve also had 17 bank accounts in Cyprus, papers filed by the US Department of Justice show.
The BBC understands that the bank is not accused of any wrongdoing by the authorities.US authorities have accused Liberty Reserve of laundering more than $6bn (£4bn) in criminal cash."Barclays can confirm it is co-operating with the investigation, following the notification it received from the authorities," a spokesman for the bank said on Sunday.
The Barclays account was in the name of Liberty Reserve founder Arthur Budovsky, the court documents said. Mr Budovsky opened the Spanish personal account in 2009, the BBC has learned.The DOJ has called Liberty Reserve the "largest international money-laundering prosecution in history", alleging that seven people involved in running the operation set up the digital cash service as a "criminal business venture" designed specifically to "help criminals conduct illegal transactions and launder the proceeds of their crimes".
Here is a bit of background on Arthur Budovsky, founder of Liberty Reserve:
Seven people, including founder Arthur Budovsky, were charged by the U.S. regulatory body. Budovsky is no stranger to illegal money laundering activities. In 2006, he was convicted of breaching money transmission guidelines associated with E-Gold. In 2011, he surrendered his U.S. citizenship and built a new financial network in Costa Rica.
But Budovsky ran out of luck in that country, as well -- when his company was charged for violating money laundering rules in 2011. However, Costa Rican regulators were duped by a false computer portal which provided fake data. Meanwhile, Liberty continued to run its operations through subsidiary companies in Malaysia, Russia, Nigeria, Cyprus, Hong Kong and Australia.
Liberty Reserves clients included:
“They included, for example: traffickers of stolen credit card data and personal identity information; peddlers of various types of online Ponzi and get-rich-quick schemes; computer hackers for hire; unregulated gambling enterprises; and underground drug-dealing Web sites,” according to the indictment.
In many ways, the basic infrastructure wasn't all that different from PayPal or other online payment providers, with one important exception: To open a Liberty Reserve account, all one needed was an email address and little more. Here's how it worked:
Liberty Reserve functioned like a bank that only took deposits in its own currency (also called the Liberty Reserve). If you wanted to launder money, you would open an account with Liberty Reserve, providing them with a name, which could be fake, and an e-mail address. The key to the scheme was that you couldn’t then deposit money directly into the account. Instead, you had to work through middlemen, who were called “exchangers.” These were typically unlicensed moneymen in countries like Malaysia, Nigeria, and Vietnam, who bought Liberty Reserves in bulk from Liberty Reserve. You would pay them dollars (or whatever currency) for a certain sum of Liberty Reserves, which they would then deposit into your account. And when you wanted to withdraw money, the process worked in reverse, perhaps with an exchanger in a different country. (Liberty Reserve itself took a one-per-cent fee on transactions, while the exchangers typically charged five per cent or more.) The point of doing it this way was that the Liberty Reserve bank would have no identifying data for you (no record of how or from where you sent the money), since the deposits and withdrawals were all done through the exchangers.
As that article notes, Liberty Reserve did have people using it for legitimate reasons, but a look at their criminal activity shines a bright light on concerns connected with virtual currency like Bitcoin and others, and it certainly piques my imagination with respect to what havoc could be wreaked by billionaires committed to absolute...liberty.