TOKYO — Loose overseas regulation of virtual currencies has prompted increased money laundering among some designated Japanese organized crime groups, with the Mainichi Shimbun confirming one case where a total of some 30 billion yen was funneled through various overseas exchanges since 2016.
While the Japanese government has recently moved to strengthen measures against money laundering, these are limited to the country’s boundaries. Grasping the situation of money being transferred through anonymous overseas accounts is a problem that cannot be solved without international cooperation.
In a bar on the second floor of an old building just off a street bubbling with nightlife in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, a 30-something member of a designated organized crime group and a Chinese man have agreed to meet once a month. The bar is a haven for people who exchange information about virtual currencies online through members-only blogs and social media sites to meet face-to-face. Japanese and English fly back and forth with specialized terms relating to cryptocurrencies mixed in.
“There were no problems,” says a Chinese man to the gang member on a night in mid-April as he hands over a USB drive. On the drive is a data file named “ZDM” filled with numbers and English notations. This is the record of money laundering using the difficult-to-trace currencies “Zcash,” “DASH” and “Monero.”
The file begins from June 2016, and shows the gang’s capital at a total of 29.85 billion yen post-laundering. The most recent record for February shows a total of some 130 million yen run through the system via several hundred transfers. The amount was lower than normal, but due to scandals surrounding cryptocurrency exchanges at the time, the gang member simply commented, “We didn’t want to draw any attention to ourselves, so this will do.”
The men then move to a room in an apartment building within walking distance called “base camp.” There, eight men and women stare into computer screens. The Chinese national reveals they are Japanese in their 20s and 30s — mostly engineers and students. These members first convert the group’s capital to blockchain currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum at Japanese exchange operators. These groups spread out the virtual currency by sending the money to five or six accounts held at exchange companies that do not require identification documents like a passport to open an account, such as the Russian exchange “YoBit.”
From there, the Bitcoin or Ethereum is converted into “Zcash,” “Dash” and “Monero” — ZDM. In terms of privacy protection, trading logs in the blockchain for these three currencies are not made public, and both the sender and receiver of the money can do business anonymously. The members used several exchange operators to move the virtual currency over dozens of transactions to cover their tracks, with collaborators in Russia making the last transaction into the local physical currency.
The personnel and equipment is all provided by the gang. “We have bases just like this all over the Tokyo area,” the gang member explains. “The most important thing is to process the money in small amounts.”
It has been less than 10 years since virtual currencies came onto the financial scene. Still, the Chinese man says, “Gangs were attracted to the anonymity associated with cryptocurrencies from the beginning. Now, its use is not limited to just money laundering, but is also being used as a venture to generate capital.” Of the total of 29.85 billion yen recorded returned to the group via foreign exchange operators in the file he gave the gangster, he commented, “I was given roughly 35 billion yen. Five billion yen was the service fee.”
“It’s a typical money laundering scheme. In a way, I’m not surprised,” said a senior official at the Financial Services Agency (FSA). “If you are going to do something illegal, then everyone knows to use the ‘three anonymous siblings,'” the official continued, referring to Zcash, DASH, and Monero. In Japan, the only cryptocurrency exchange that dealt with the three siblings was scandal-hit firm Coincheck Inc., from which thieves siphoned off 58 billion yen worth of “NEM” currency. However, after Coincheck was bought out by Monex Group Inc., the new owner expressed its intention to cease trading in those virtual currencies.
The FSA now administers the revised Payment Services Act, which was introduced in April 2017. The new law required cryptocurrency exchanges to register with the agency and for users to provide proof of their identity. In addition, divided asset management and allowing for outside monitoring of accounts was also introduced. Following the Coincheck case, the FSA inspected cryptocurrency exchanges to find many problems in the anti-money laundering measures taken by those domestic firms, issueing orders to improve their business operations. .
However, even with the revised laws, nothing can be done to regulate the operating practices of exchange firms overseas. Once the money is wired abroad, it is difficult to grasp the whereabouts of the currency from Japan, especially when accounts that do not require official identification to open are used.
“It’s nearly impossible for Japan to handle the problem alone,” the FSA official explained. “Even if trade is restricted to only domestic transfers or monitoring is enhanced, it’s still not enough to counter money laundering. It would be best if all the group of 20 industrial and emerging nations and regions (G-20) would take the same steps toward prevention.”
Some countries are already moving in this direction. The Chinese government shut down exchange offices, while the South Korean government outlawed the practice of exchange operators issuing their own virtual currency to raise capital — or “initial coin offerings (ICO).” Meanwhile, India is set to outlaw the trade of cryptocurrencies all together, and the European Union is drafting legislation that would prioritize the protection of users. The United States is considering revisiting how the system is structured.
Still, it is unclear if all nations will take the same steps toward countering money laundering and other crimes. While the G-20 did decide in March this year to improve the system and come out with concrete measures to do so by July, it seems that it may still take time until agreement and enactment of those new rules is realized.