Why Are Bitcoiners Going to Jail for Money Laundering While Big Banks Walk?

BitcoinDollar

Image: Shutterstock

Cathy ReisenwitzBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, the firm paid a fine of $1.9 billion. Authorities made no arrests, and HSBC still turned a $13.5 billion profit that year.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi detailed the crimes HSBC helped fund, including “tens of thousands of murders” and laundering money for Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. By contrast, Silk Road users have only been shown to have bought and sold drugs. (The six murders-for-hire commissioned by alleged former Silk Road head Ross Ulbricht were never carried out.) In fact, by moving transactions online, Silk Road likely decreased the violence associated with the drug trade.

Again, no individual associated with HSBC paid any money or spent a day in jail. Shrem is currently in custody. Why is there such a disparity? Clearly the size, scope, violence or effect of the crime can’t justify the discrepancy in response. The Justice Department explained it by saying that HSBC is, in essence, Too Big to Jail.

“Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer during the announcement of the HSBC settlement. “HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.”

What are the moral and practical underpinnings of a law whose punishments are harshest for those who violate it least? The Justice Department is here admitting that the costs of fairly enforcing the money laundering laws as written — potentially shaking up a major bank — outweigh the benefits.

Charlie Shrem founded BitInstant, a service that let users quickly buy into Bitcoin, in his family’s garage with $10,000 of their money while still in college. He became a founding member of the Bitcoin Foundation and served as vice chairman of the board — a position he’s since stepped down from. But his startup was plagued by regulatory troubles from the start, fueled by a lack of clear regulation pertaining to Bitcoin. In a trailer for the Bitcoin documentary “The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin,” Shrem claims to spend “thousands of dollars on lawyers every day just to make sure that I’m not gonna go to jail.”

While Shrem operated in regulatory uncertainty, and didn’t know the charges against him on the day he was arrested, HSBC received 30 different formal warnings in just one brief stretch between 2005 and 2006. Even then, HSBC was openly flouting the rules. The bankers knew, for instance, that they were funneling money for people such as one of 20 early financiers of Al Qaeda, a member of what Osama bin Laden himself apparently called the “Golden Chain,” according to Taibbi. Another customer was powerful Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, a close confidant of the Assad family.

Some, including Taibbi, have called for equal jail time for all offenders. There is no doubt that the Justice Department is overstating the lasting, worldwide effect of justly applying money laundering laws. However, the drawbacks to enforcing laws against what’s estimated to make up a third of all transactions are very real. In this reality, it’s legitimate to ask whether laws against money laundering should be applied to anyone.

Money laundering is, simply, the process of concealing sources of money. While the standard image of money laundering involves murders, Mexican narco-gangs, and Al Qaeda, in reality there are many reasons that normal people would want to keep their transactions anonymous — which is a big reason why Bitcoin gained popularity with libertarians in the first place.

As J. Orlin Grabbe wrote, “Anyone who has studied the evolution of money-laundering statutes in the U.S. and elsewhere will realize that the ‘crime’ of money laundering boils down to a single, basic prohibited act: Doing something and not telling the government about it.” Criminalizing this means that by default government has the right to know the source of all of every citizen’s money. In some jurisdictions, money laundering can be just using financial systems or services that do not identify or track sources or destinations.

Writing in American Banker, Bitcoin advocate Jon Matonis explains that “from President Roosevelt’s 1933 seizure of personal gold to the Nazi confiscation of Jewish wealth to the recent deposit theft at Cyprus banks, asset plundering by governments has a long and colorful tradition. Protecting wealth from oppressive regimes continues to this day.”

In that piece, Matonis calls money laundering the thoughtcrime of finance, a sentiment that’s gained traction in libertarian circles. Hiding or failing to report where money comes from is, in and of itself, a victimless crime. The theory is that everyone owes it to the government to make enforcing laws against violent crime easier. But that’s not really accurate, as most of the laundered money is used in other crimes whose violence stems from their being illegal, such as gambling and the drug trade.

This reporting to the government comes at a significant cost, both in terms of resources and privacy.

The Economist has estimated the annual costs of anti-money laundering efforts in Europe and North America to be in the billions. Even its most legitimate function, trying to keep people from financing terror, has been deemed a costly failure by the magazine. Curiously enough, the Economist concedes that efforts to reduce identity theft and credit card fraud are most effective at combating money laundering.

Perhaps this cost could be justified if the information gathered through the reporting requirements was used to cut off funds to terrorists. But as the HSBC case shows, that’s not the case. After getting notice after notice about failing to properly report on its customers, HSBC simply hired former call center employees to “investigate” cases of money laundering to unsavory characters. And when one employee actually did, he was fired.

Besides costing billions, efforts to stamp out money laundering also erode privacy. Ensuring every transaction is above board forces banks to be cops through so-called “know your customer” laws. These laws essentially conscript private businesses “into agents of the surveillance state,”according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Bitcoin offers an interesting counterpoint: Even if accounts may be anonymous, transactions are all public, which is a level of transparency not seen in the fiat currency system.

So why does alleged Bitcoin laundering deserve jail time? On a pure cost-to-benefit basis, perhaps it makes sense to jail Shrem while giving HSBC executives a slap-on-the-wrist fine. Revoking the bank’s license would rock the entire financial system, while Shrem’s enterprise was already on hold at the time of his arrest.

However, laws which result in jail time for minor infractions while the worst offenders walk free deserve their own cost/benefit analysis. If money laundering laws are worth their cost to companies, to the government, and to privacy, surely they are worth applying fairly and evenly. If not, perhaps its time to rethink whether they make sense at all.

— Cathy Reisenwitz

This article originally appeared here on Vice.com.

Cathy Reisenwitz is an editor at Young Voices and a D.C.-based writer and political commentator. She is editor-in-chief of Sex and the State, and her writing has appeared in Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo, The Washington Examiner, and the Daily Caller.

  • Fitness Games Don't Work. Here's What Does...

    Fitness Games Don’t Work. Here’s What Does…

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Feb 9, 2015

    A mysterious alien race is invading planet Earth. And those “in the know” are splitting into two camps. You might not know it, but you and your health are in danger. Chris Campbell reports. Read on…

  • The Great "Digital Nomad" Challenge (Are You Game?)

    The Great “Digital Nomad” Challenge (Are You Game?)

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Jan 22, 2015

    What is a digital nomad? Why is this strange creature guilty of "currency arbitrage"? Why is it awesome? Chris Campbell investigates. Read on...

  • Motorbikes, Cockfights, and Laser Beams

    Motorbikes, Cockfights, and Laser Beams

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Jan 20, 2015

    The adventure begins. Chris Campbell reports in from Bangkok. And you’ll never believe what he’s already gotten himself into. Read on…

  • Blowing Smoke Up Your Butt

    Blowing Smoke Up Your Butt

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Jan 7, 2015

    Do you know where the expression “blowing smoke” comes from? From an old -- and very strange -- medical device. You won’t believe what else Chris Campbell has unearthed from the olden days of strange medicine. Read on…

  • SPACE: The Final Frontier Begins

    SPACE: The Final Frontier Begins

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Nov 18, 2014

    Would you leave Earth to help colonize another planet? This might sound like an absurd question, but, according to many leaders of thought, its one we might have to confront sooner than later. Chris Campbell explores our journey from air to space, and ponders where we’re off to next. Read on…

  • HowToGrabYourPiece

    How to Grab Your Piece of the $240 Million Secret Market No One Knows About

    Ryan Cole

    by Ryan Cole
    On Feb 9, 2015

    In December last year, a lot of people were laughing off an inept thief. Not only did Charles Jennings, a cargo worker, quickly get caught — but his $1.5 million haul was snicker-worthy. Who’d want his product? How on earth could he sell the 7,500 pieces — or move them anywhere near that $1.5 million retail price tag? How dumb could he be? Here’s the thing — all the people snickering don’t know what they’re talking about. The $1.5 million stash? On the open market, it could easily be worth twice that. Heck — it could be worth 10 times as much or more. And moving it would be easy.

     

  • How to Blow the Whistle (and Not Live to Tell the Tale)

    How to Blow the Whistle (and Not Live to Tell the Tale)

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 29, 2014

    If you’ve ever wanted to expose some heinous crime against humanity, here’s your chance. In today’s Laissez Faire Today, Chris Campbell shows you how to make sure the world accesses to your leaks, even if something happens to you. Chris also shares why this is probably a terrible idea. Read on…

  • Edison’s Secret Energy War is Back (Here’s How to Cash in)

    Edison’s Secret Energy War is Back (Here’s How to Cash in)

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 23, 2014

    Over a century ago, a hidden energy war began. The bad guys won. For 100 years, man has been a slave to the energy monopolies. But now, miraculously, the good guys are throwing a punch -- and they’re inviting you to fight the good fight. Even promising riches if you do. Chris Campbell fills you in on the full story. Read on…

  • Thrive in Chaos: The Ancient Secret to Self-Sufficiency

    Thrive in Chaos: The Ancient Secret to Self-Sufficiency

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 22, 2014

    An ancient guide has been in hiding… until now. As it dusts itself off, some early adopters are calling it “the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualization and strength.” And, according to Chris Campbell, it could be the only thing you need to thrive in our day-to-day life of modern chaos. Embrace it, and become the hero of your own story. Ignore it, and risk living a whimper of a life on someone else’s terms. Read on…

  • The 3-D Printing Story You Weren’t Told (and How it Ruined My Face)

    The 3-D Printing Story You Weren’t Told (and How it Ruined My Face)

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 18, 2014

    “What… is… that?!”That’s what one colleague asked when she saw this on my desk…My face, according to 3-D printing“My face,” I said. “What does it look like?”“Uh…”OK, sure. It’s a rough depiction. Eh. It’s pretty choppy…And, as you can see, the glasses didn’t really take well… making for an eerie sunken eye look.Didn’t really turn […]

  • VC Barrel Tasting with Cris

    The Wine World’s “Hatfields and McCoys”

    Joe Maga

    by Joe Maga
    On Feb 4, 2015

    Among red wines, two varietals are often latched onto by certain enthusiasts. “I only drink cabs,” or, “I only drink pinots.” Such statements are common surrounding these wines. Pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon: two wines with very different bodies, styles and flavor profiles. In my experience, those who “only” drink one usually cannot relate to those who “only” drink the other. The Hatfields and the McCoys of the wine drinking world.

     

  • Bitcoin: Buy Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

    Bitcoin: Buy Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 17, 2014

    Bitcoin has been pretty quiet lately. But that doesn’t mean big things aren’t taking place behind-the-scenes for the digital currency. In today’s Laissez Faire Today, Chris Campbell pulls back the curtain and shows you how Bitcoin is quietly slipping into the mainstream. He also shows you why now could be the time to buy now, or forever hold your peace. Read on…

  • Net Neutrality: The Story Not Being Told

    Net Neutrality: The Story Not Being Told

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 12, 2014

    In an odd mix of fate, protesters and corporations are holding hands. They both have one common goal: save the Internet from the evil cable companies. We all have a common hate for them. But what if the cable companies aren’t as evil as once thought? What if there’s an even bigger evil lurking behind them? There is. Read on…

  • The Only Way to Get Rich: A Zen Proverb

    The Only Way to Get Rich: A Zen Proverb

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 10, 2014

    Want to get rich? Don’t listen to financial “gurus,” says Chris Campbell. In today’s Laissez Faire Today, Chris shares a Zen proverb and shows how understanding it is the only real way to get rich (and live a rich life). Read on…

  • HappyFamily

    One Free Website to Keep Your Family Safe

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 9, 2014

    Ben Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In today’s Laissez Faire Today, you’ll learn about one FREE website that has the potential to not only keep your family safe – but also open your eyes to what’s happening in your own neighborhood. Chris Campbell has all the details. Read on…

  • BiggestLandlord

    Triple-Dip on Profits With America’s Biggest Landlord

    Zach Scheidt

    by Zach Scheidt
    On Feb 4, 2015

    Last month, when renewing our health insurance, our carrier screwed up, leaving the entire Hill family without dental coverage... Their incompetence, however, opened our eyes to burgeoning alternatives in the health care space. To be specific, we were able to save $88 on our recent dental visit despite not having insurance. And it was all thanks to a little slip of paper that took us five minutes to acquire and cost us nothing.

     

  • Youre_Incredible

    Use “Power Gaps” to Build Your Own Empire

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 8, 2014

    All over the world, power is dying. The dictators and tyrants of the world are no longer able to wield it like they once used to. And they’re losing it to the “little guy.” Chris Campbell shows you how to be the king of your castle by taking advantage of this fact. Today, you’ll learn how to grab “power gaps” in the market and channel them into your product idea or project. Read on…

  • http://pro1.lfb.org/257033?email={emailaddress}

    Cash in on the Hidden Sex Boom

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 5, 2014

    Chris Campbell got more than he bargained for during Sunday brunch. In a packed restaurant, he learned about a hidden sex boom that’s taking the world by storm. You won’t believe how much money ordinary Americans are making in this boom. It’s so much…you may even consider cashing in yourself.

  • Hacker

    Celebgate: Your Pictures Are Next

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 4, 2014

    Hundreds of pictures of nude celebrities were leaked onto the Internet last week. The mainstream is blaming twenty-something hackers, but according to Chris Campbell, everyone must’ve already forgotten what we learned about the NSA only a year ago. Read on…

  • Free Markets and Malaysian Fireflies

    Free Markets and Malaysian Fireflies

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 3, 2014

    The fireflies along the tidal rivers of Malaysia show "feats of synchrony that occur spontaneously, almost as if nature has an eerie yearning for order." Chris Campbell tells you where else this might occur in the world. Also, new technology may revolutionize the agriculture industry and what we think of as a farm.

  • PainRelief

    The Natural Pain Relief Miracle

    Brad Lemley

    by Brad Lemley
    On Feb 4, 2015

    What’s the single biggest health problem in America? Note that I’m not asking about the most widespread disease. Instead, I’m inquiring about the specific health problem that the largest number of Americans would most dearly love to solve.

     

  • Smoking Pot in the Governor’s Mansion

    Smoking Pot in the Governor’s Mansion

    Chris Campbell

    by Chris Campbell
    On Sep 2, 2014

    Jeff Davis is running for Governor in Hawaii and has an interesting campaign strategy. Also, what motivates hackers is revealed and the findings might surprise you. Finally, Ferguson is discussed in a new light. Chris Campbell has more...

  • The End of Money

    The End of Money

    Bill Bonner

    by Bill Bonner
    On Aug 22, 2014

    When the government pumps trillions of dollars into the economy, they’re not actually printing the money. It enters as digital entries in banks across the country. It’s made the system fast, responsive, and, unfortunately, vulnerable. Now our money is no longer something we hold in our hands, but something that exists on a very susceptible network.

    An article in , ,

  • Time to Take the Plunge in Juniors

    Time to Take the Plunge in Juniors

    Doug French

    by Doug French
    On Aug 19, 2014

    When’s the best time to invest in something? When everyone else is trying to get their money out of it. It might go against conventional thinking, but following the crowd usually makes you miss the real opportunities. At one monetary metal conference recently, the smartest guys in the industry sat down to discuss where these real hidden gems lay.

  • The Moral Case for Self-Driving Cars

    The Moral Case for Self-Driving Cars

    Ronald Bailey

    by Ronald Bailey
    On Aug 18, 2014

    Say goodbye to your boring morning commute. New technologies are changing the way people drive their cars. It’s making them safer, more fuel efficient, and could reshape the way America builds its roads and cities. The only thing that could stand in the way...

  • Beef

    Beef: The Smart, Compassionate Choice

    Brad Lemley

    by Brad Lemley
    On Feb 1, 2015

    For the last few decades, virtually everyone seems to have agreed that eating beef is a bad idea: bad for the planet, bad for personal health, and bad morally. The problem? Beef haters are wrong on all counts. Beef can be a boon for the planet, extraordinarily healthful, and a highly moral choice.

     

  • Central Planning by Central Bankers

    Central Planning by Central Bankers

    Gary North

    by Gary North
    On Aug 15, 2014

    In a 2009 article, the Huffington Post went into considerable detail about the number of people with PhD degrees in economics employed by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. This is the government’s branch of the Federal Reserve. It is not one of the 12 regional Federal Reserve banks, all of which […]

  • The Only Email System the NSA Can’t Access

    The Only Email System the NSA Can’t Access

    Hollie Slade

    by Hollie Slade
    On Aug 11, 2014

    When the NSA surveillance news broke last year it sent shockwaves through CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Switzerland. Andy Yen, a PhD student, took to the Young at CERN Facebook group with a simple message: “I am very concerned about the privacy issue, and I was wondering what I could do about it.”There was […]

  • Don’t Ignore These 3 Big Sells

    Don’t Ignore These 3 Big Sells

    Greg Guenthner

    by Greg Guenthner
    On Aug 1, 2014

    Remember that correction we’ve been quietly talking about over the past couple of months?Well, it might be right around the corner. Stocks waited until the last day of the month to nose-dive. The S&P 500 posted its first 2% down day since April — and the Dow wasn’t far behind. Early this morning, futures continue […]

  • Why You’re Probably on an NSA Watchlist

    Why You’re Probably on an NSA Watchlist

    Mike Leahy

    by Mike Leahy
    On Jul 30, 2014

    I was talking with one of my colleagues the other day, and he raised a very interesting question, one that deserves consideration by anyone worried about their digital privacy. He read an article that championed the idea that the more steps one took to protect their privacy by using anonymous Web-browsing tools like Tor, the […]

    An article in ,

  • GMOProblem

    The Real GMO Problem

    Brad Lemley

    by Brad Lemley
    On Jan 20, 2015

    Pretty much everyone, I hope, has heard of genetically modified organisms, also called GMOs. And pretty much everyone, I hope, knows that they are now a major part of the American food supply. Most people, however, can’t say why this situation might be dangerous, beyond the idea that splicing genes from one species into another is “unnatural.”

     

  • Smart Apps vs. Obamacare

    Smart Apps vs. Obamacare

    Greg Beato

    by Greg Beato
    On Jul 23, 2014

    Health care costs in the U.S. have been rising so steadily for so long that containment barely seems possible. Even optimists don’t dream of cutting the price tag. As its official name — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — suggests, Obamacare aims for affordability, not radical reduction.But at a time when we’re all […]

  • The Bitcoin Billion-Dollar Discount

    The Bitcoin Billion-Dollar Discount

    Dominic Frisby

    by Dominic Frisby
    On Jul 17, 2014

    When you type a website address into a browser, you might have noticed that the letters “http” appear at the front. “HTTP” stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. In typing a Web address, you are actually sending an HTTP command to transmit that website to you. Hypertext Transfer Protocol is the means by which information is […]