Unveiling the Complexity of Layering in Money Laundering

15 mins

When it comes to financial crimes, one practice stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of its complexity, and that is money laundering. This isn't a run-of-the-mill crime. Money laundering is a sophisticated operation that requires careful planning, an in-depth understanding of financial systems, and a knack for exploiting loopholes in these systems.

At the heart of this elaborate scheme lies a process known as 'layering'. Layering in money laundering can be likened to the artistry of a master illusionist. It's about creating a facade, a smoke screen of convoluted transactions that serve one purpose - to obfuscate the illicit origin of funds.

Imagine trying to follow the path of a single leaf carried by a whirlwind. This is the complexity that layering introduces to money laundering. It involves creating a series of intricate financial transactions, each designed to distance the illicit funds from their source further, complicating the trail and making the process of tracing the money back to its origin increasingly difficult for authorities.

The layering process might involve transferring funds between multiple banks or across different countries. It could entail trading in high-value assets, like property and shares, or using the money to purchase and then quickly sell these assets. In some cases, the layering process even involves the use of cryptocurrencies, exploiting their decentralized nature to add another degree of complexity.

Layering is designed to confuse, deceive, and create such a tangled web that tracing the path of the money becomes like finding a needle in a haystack. And for a time, it might work. But financial institutions and law enforcement agencies worldwide are growing ever more adept at spotting the signs of layering. They employ advanced technology, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to analyze transactions and identify suspicious activity.

While the complexity of layering in money laundering presents a significant challenge, it is by no means an insurmountable one. By increasing our understanding of these tactics, we can strengthen our defences and work towards more effective ways to disrupt these operations, trace the illicit funds, and hold the perpetrators accountable.

Detailed Explanation of the 3 Stages of Money Laundering

Money laundering is not a straightforward process; it's a multi-faceted, methodically planned crime that typically involves three key stages: placement, layering, and integration. Each of these stages plays a crucial role in the overall laundering scheme, adding a layer of complexity and deception. Here's a more thorough exploration of each phase:

  • Placement: The initial stage of money laundering is the placement. This stage serves as the entry point of the illicit funds into the legitimate financial system. Placement could be as simple as depositing large amounts of cash into a bank account. However, criminals often opt for more complex methods to avoid detection. 
    For instance, they might purchase high-value assets such as properties, cars, or precious metals. Gambling is another common avenue, where the laundered money is used to buy chips or place bets, and the winnings are then collected as 'clean' money.
    In an increasingly digital world, cybercriminals are also turning to cryptocurrencies. They can deposit the illicit funds into a cryptocurrency exchange and then transfer the digital assets between wallets, taking advantage of the perceived anonymity of blockchain transactions.
  • Layering: The second phase, layering, is where the complexity of money laundering truly comes to the fore. In this stage, the aim is to confuse the paper trail, making it harder for authorities to trace the money back to its illicit source. The laundered money is moved around extensively during this phase – it's transferred between different accounts, across multiple banks, and even between different countries.
    Layering can also involve currency exchange, leveraging the fluctuating exchange rates to add another degree of complexity. Asset trading is another common method employed during this stage. The criminal may buy and then quickly sell properties or other high-value assets, further muddying the monetary trail.
  • Integration: Integration is the final stage of the money laundering process. At this point, the money, now distanced from its unlawful origin and appearing 'clean', is returned to the criminal. But this reintegration isn't performed haphazardly—the criminal needs to ensure that the reintroduced money doesn't raise suspicions. One approach is to mix the laundered money with legally earned income from a legitimate business. For example, a criminal could own a cash-heavy business, such as a restaurant or a car wash, and inflate the daily earnings with the laundered money. Similarly, they might invest the laundered funds into legal ventures, such as real estate development or stock market trading. The returns from these investments are then collected as seemingly legitimate income.

By understanding each stage of money laundering in detail, it's easier to appreciate the sophistication of these operations. It also underscores the challenges that law enforcement and financial institutions face in detecting and preventing such schemes. But most importantly, it highlights why continuous advancements in technology, regulation, and international cooperation are crucial in the ongoing fight against money laundering.

A pictorial representation of the three stages of money laundering is given below.

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In-Depth Look into the Layering Process

In the layering stage of money laundering, criminals use a variety of techniques to obscure the source of the funds. These transactions might occur rapidly and in a pattern designed to confuse and disorient anyone trying to trace the funds. Here's a more detailed look into how these techniques work:

  • Breaking Up Large Amounts of Money: One of the most common practices in the layering phase is breaking up large amounts of money into smaller, less noticeable transactions, a technique often referred to as structuring or smurfing. This approach takes advantage of regulatory thresholds that require financial institutions to report transactions above a certain amount. For instance, if a financial institution has to report any transaction above $10,000, a money launderer might make multiple transactions of $9,000 each. This strategy aims to stay below the radar of financial watchdogs and avoid drawing attention to the transactions. The small transactions are then distributed across different accounts, banks, or financial institutions, further scattering the trail of the illicit funds.
  • Transferring Funds: The rapid transfer of funds between accounts and financial institutions is another core tactic used during the layering phase. These transactions might occur across different banks, between various countries, or even among separate financial institutions. Each transfer serves to cloud the financial trail further, making it increasingly challenging for investigators to follow the path of the money back to its original illicit source.
    For instance, funds might be transferred from a bank account in one country to a bank account in another, then moved to a different bank within the same country, and then transferred again to an offshore account in a tax haven. Each transfer serves to create confusion and distance the money further from its origin.
  • Purchasing and Selling Assets: The buying and selling of high-value assets is another technique used in the layering phase. Criminals might purchase assets such as real estate, luxury cars, yachts, or precious metals and gemstones with the illicit money. These assets are then quickly sold, and the funds generated from these sales appear to be legitimate income.
    For instance, a criminal could buy a piece of real estate with the dirty money and then sell the property. The proceeds of the sale, which seem to be profits from a real estate transaction, are now distanced from their criminal source.
  • Using Digital Currencies: The advent of digital currencies like Bitcoin has introduced a new tool for money launderers. Transactions with cryptocurrencies can be difficult to trace, providing an attractive avenue for layering. A criminal could convert illicit money into Bitcoin, transfer the Bitcoin to a different wallet or exchange, and then convert it back into traditional currency or another cryptocurrency.
    The blockchain technology behind these digital currencies can provide a veneer of anonymity, making it harder for authorities to trace the transactions. However, it's important to note that while cryptocurrency transactions can be difficult to trace, they are not entirely anonymous. With advanced technology and the right resources, blockchain transactions can be tracked and linked back to their participants.

As we delve deeper into the intricacies of the layering stage in money laundering, it's clear to see the challenges that financial institutions and law enforcement agencies face. However, this understanding also empowers these entities to develop more sophisticated tools and methodologies to detect and disrupt such activities, reaffirming the significance of continuous advancements in technology and regulations.

Real-Life Examples of Layering in Money Laundering

Now that we've explored the theory of layering let's take a look at some real-life examples to understand better how these tactics play out:

Shell Companies and Offshore Accounts: Perhaps the most notorious means of layering money is by establishing shell companies and using offshore accounts. Shell companies are businesses that exist only on paper, with no physical presence, active operations, or employees. Their primary purpose is to facilitate financial transactions and to hide the true owner of funds.

An example of this method being used on a grand scale was exposed with the Panama Papers leak in 2016. This vast trove of leaked documents, amounting to more than 2.6 terabytes of data, unveiled an intricate global network of over 200,000 shell companies. These companies, set up by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, were used by influential individuals around the world to facilitate money laundering, tax evasion, and other illicit financial activities. The intricate web of these companies created layers of transactions that obscured the origins and true ownership of the funds, making it a clear example of layering in action.

Trade-Based Money Laundering: Trade-based money laundering is another prevalent tactic employed by criminals, involving the manipulation of trade transactions to disguise the movement of illicit funds. It's a sophisticated form of layering that often entails over-or under-invoicing of goods and services, over-or under-shipment of goods, or falsely describing goods or services.

For instance, a money launderer may arrange for an accomplice to export goods at significantly inflated prices. The exporter is then paid with dirty money, but the funds appear as legitimate trade earnings on paper. Similarly, launderers might import goods with highly understated values, then sell them at market prices, making a significant 'legitimate' profit.

Use of Nominees, Trusts, and Family Members: To further obfuscate the illicit trail of money, criminals often employ nominees or trusts. Nominees are individuals or entities that, on paper, control the assets or money, but in reality, they are simply holding it on behalf of the criminal. Similarly, trusts can be set up to make it appear as if the assets are owned by the trust and not the criminal, further clouding the ownership chain.

Involving family members in money laundering schemes is another tactic used to disguise the source of funds. For example, a criminal may transfer their assets to a family member through a seemingly innocuous transaction, like a gift or loan repayment. This tactic exploits the inherent trust in family relationships to lend an air of legitimacy to the transactions.

These examples highlight the wide array of methods available to criminals during the layering phase of money laundering. They underscore the necessity of global cooperation, advanced technology, and stringent regulations to detect and disrupt such schemes and hold the perpetrators accountable.

Red Flags Indicating Layering in Money Laundering

Identifying layering activities can be challenging due to their deliberately confusing nature. However, some red flags could indicate layering:

  • Complex Business Transactions: Transactions that appear unusually complex, convoluted, or devoid of clear economic rationale may be indicative of layering. This could manifest as quick purchases and sales of assets without clear profit motivation, unusually intricate supply chains, or unnecessary intermediaries involved in transactions. For instance, a company might purchase a high-value asset only to quickly sell it at a similar price, or contracts might be routed through several intermediary companies without a clear need. These seemingly nonsensical actions can be attempts to create a dense web of transactions designed to confuse and conceal the trail of illicit money.
  • Multiple Rapid Transactions: An account suddenly witnessing a flurry of activity, especially involving substantial sums of money, could be a sign of a layering operation. This is particularly true when the transactions involve frequent transfers between different banks, accounts, or even countries. In typical banking activity, substantial transactions are usually spaced out and have clear purposes. So, when large amounts of money rapidly move in and out of an account without a discernible reason, it may indicate attempts to obscure the money's illicit origin.
  • Overseas Transactions: Transactions involving jurisdictions known as tax havens or countries with weak money laundering controls can also be a red flag. These jurisdictions often provide higher financial secrecy, making them attractive for layering operations. The use of offshore bank accounts or shell companies in these locations can be a telltale sign of layering. For instance, frequent transactions with entities based in countries that are not involved in the client's usual business operations, or where the client has no apparent ties, may warrant further scrutiny.
  • Overcomplication: In essence, if a series of transactions or business operations appears unnecessarily complex, it could be cause for suspicion. Layering often involves creating layers of complexity to confound those trying to trace the money. It's almost like a game of smoke and mirrors – the more convoluted the transactions, the harder it becomes to follow the money trail. A company structuring its transactions in a perplexingly complex manner, without clear business justification, may be endeavoring to hide something.
These red flags don't necessarily prove the existence of layering or money laundering, but they do warrant closer inspection. Financial institutions employ teams of analysts and sophisticated software to monitor transactions for these and other signs of suspicious activity. When these red flags are spotted, they trigger further investigation to determine whether the activity is legitimate or a part of a money laundering scheme.

Layering and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Measures

Indeed, Anti-Money Laundering (AML) measures are at the forefront of combating criminal activities like layering money laundering. They provide a robust framework that mandates financial institutions to diligently monitor customer transactions and promptly report any suspicious activity to relevant authorities.

AML and Suspicious Activity Reporting: Under AML regulations, if a financial institution observes any signs of layering or other unusual activities – such as complex business transactions with no clear economic purpose, a sudden flurry of large transactions, or transactions linked to tax havens – they are obliged to file a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) with the financial intelligence unit in their country (such as FinCEN in the United States).

These reports are confidential and crucial in alerting authorities about potential illicit activities. By identifying such red flags of layering money laundering, financial institutions play a crucial role in stifling these criminal attempts to camouflage illicit funds.

AML and KYC Practices: AML regulations also necessitate that financial institutions implement robust Know Your Customer (KYC) procedures. KYC is an essential pillar of effective AML measures. It involves verifying the identity of customers, understanding the nature of the customer's business, comprehending the reasons for their transactions, and knowing where their money originates.

Through effective KYC practices, banks and other financial institutions can form a comprehensive profile of their customers' usual financial behaviour. This baseline then enables them to spot any deviations that might indicate suspicious activities, such as layering in money laundering.

For instance, if a customer who typically makes infrequent, small deposits suddenly starts making large, frequent deposits, this shift could be a sign of the placement stage of money laundering. Similarly, if a customer who usually conducts transactions domestically starts making frequent international transfers, especially to high-risk jurisdictions, this could be a red flag indicating layering.

Moreover, by understanding their customers better, financial institutions are not only better equipped to spot and report suspicious activities but can also mitigate their risk exposure. They can make informed decisions about initiating or continuing business relationships, ensuring they do not unwittingly become conduits for money laundering.

Implementation of AML Policies

Certainly, a well-structured Anti-Money Laundering (AML) program plays a pivotal role in fighting against financial crimes like money laundering. For businesses, particularly financial institutions, a robust AML program is a crucial part of their compliance framework, directly affecting their ability to detect and disrupt layering in money laundering. Let's delve into the key components of an effective AML program:

  • Risk Assessment: The first step in an effective AML program is conducting a thorough risk assessment. This involves identifying, assessing, and understanding the potential money laundering and terrorist financing risks an organization might face. This could be influenced by various factors such as the nature of the business, its size, its customers, the countries it operates in, and the types of products or services it offers. A comprehensive risk assessment helps organizations to take appropriate measures to manage and mitigate these risks.
  • Internal Policies, Procedures, and Controls: The next step is to develop and implement internal policies, procedures, and controls based on the identified risks. These might include customer due diligence procedures, transaction monitoring systems, and reporting mechanisms for suspicious activity. They should be tailored to fit the size and nature of the organization, and they need to be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure their continued effectiveness.
  • AML Compliance Officer: Appointing a designated AML Compliance Officer is another crucial component. This individual is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the AML program, ensuring compliance with relevant regulations, and serving as the main point of contact for regulatory bodies.
  • Continuous Training: Employees should receive ongoing training on AML regulations, the organization's policies and procedures, and how to identify and report suspicious activity. This helps to ensure that all employees are vigilant and informed, increasing the chances of detecting layering money laundering.
  • Independent Audit Functions: Finally, an independent audit function should be established to test the effectiveness of the AML program. Auditors should regularly assess the program's efficiency, identify any areas for improvement, and ensure that the organization remains compliant with all relevant regulations.

Beyond these standard practices, the integration of innovative technologies has become a game-changer in AML compliance programs.

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning: Technological advancements, especially in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, have been harnessed to strengthen AML efforts. These technologies can analyze vast amounts of data much quicker than humans, identifying patterns, anomalies, or trends that might indicate suspicious activity. For instance, AI can detect complex money laundering schemes such as layering by identifying irregular transaction patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed.

AI and machine learning algorithms can be trained to adapt and improve over time, making them increasingly efficient at spotting potential layering activities. These technologies not only enhance the detection of suspicious transactions but also help reduce false positives, thereby making the overall AML process more efficient and effective.

Significance of International Cooperation in Combatting Money Laundering

Money laundering is a global issue. As such, international cooperation is paramount in effectively combatting this crime. Countries need to work together to ensure the enforcement of AML regulations across borders. This can be achieved through mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs) and other forms of international cooperation.

In addition, international bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) provide guidance to countries in establishing strong AML frameworks. This ensures a globalized approach to tackling money laundering, including the disruption of layering processes.

The Societal Impact of Money Laundering and the Role of Layering

The societal impact of money laundering, with layering as a vital cog in this illicit machine, is substantial and pervasive. Money laundering isn't just a financial crime; it has far-reaching and damaging effects on society at large, fuelling other forms of crime, propagating corruption, and even destabilizing economies.

At its core, money laundering is an enabler of crime. Making ill-gotten gains appear legitimate provides the financial fuel for a wide range of criminal activities, from drug trafficking and organized crime to fraud and corruption. Layering money laundering plays an essential part in this process. By obscuring the original source of illicit funds, layering enables criminals to inject their profits back into the economy, free from suspicion.

When this laundering process goes unchecked, it serves as a positive feedback loop for criminals. The successfully laundered money provides the means for continued criminal activities and a powerful incentive for committing more crimes. This amplifies the scale of criminal activities, which in turn breeds more corruption, increases social inequality, and undermines societal trust in institutions.

In addition, money laundering can significantly destabilize economies. When illicit money is made to appear legitimate and is reinvested in the economy, it can distort market conditions and economic trends. This may lead to unpredictable fluctuations in asset and commodity prices, real estate bubbles, and even economic crises. It also undermines the fairness of the economic system, with honest businesses unable to compete with those funded by laundered money.

Beyond this, there is an indirect impact on society through the erosion of societal norms and values. When money laundering becomes prevalent, it can lead to a general acceptance of corruption as a 'necessary evil,' thus degrading moral standards.

Given these significant societal impacts, understanding and disrupting the layering process in money laundering is of paramount importance. It is not just about preventing financial crime; it is about safeguarding the health of our economies, the integrity of our institutions, and the very fabric of our societies. By investing in robust AML measures and enhancing our ability to detect and disrupt layering activities, we can play a vital role in reducing the societal impact of money laundering.


Layering in money laundering is a complex process designed to confuse and conceal. However, with a thorough understanding of what layering is and how it works, along with robust AML policies, ongoing monitoring, and international cooperation, it is possible to detect and disrupt this process. As we continue to advance in technology and global collaboration, we stand a better chance in the fight against money laundering.

The countries that are suffering the most due to money laundering have complex financial systems, ineffective AML/CFT compliance programs or operations, which leads them to become vulnerable to various criminal activities. Current AML programs powered by legacy rule-based systems are proving costly to manage and ineffective as criminals constantly improve their laundering strategies.

Modern RegTech solutions powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analytics can effectively detect layering techniques such as the use of money mules and offshore shell companies.

To know how Tookitaki helps financial institutions of all types and sizes strengthen their AML compliance programmes, book a demo with us.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are examples of layering in money laundering?

Examples include the use of offshore accounts, shell companies, and rapid buying and selling of assets.

What are the 3 layers of money laundering?

The three stages of money laundering are placement, layering, and integration.

How can businesses protect themselves from being used for layering in money laundering?

Businesses can protect themselves by implementing a comprehensive Anti-Money Laundering (AML) program. This program should include conducting regular risk assessments, developing internal policies and procedures, appointing a dedicated AML officer, providing continuous training to employees, and setting up an independent audit function. 

What are the consequences of failing to detect and report layering activities in money laundering?

The consequences can be severe for businesses that fail to detect and report layering activities in money laundering. These might include substantial financial penalties, regulatory sanctions, and reputational damage. In severe cases, it could lead to loss of banking licenses. Additionally, by failing to prevent money laundering, businesses indirectly contribute to the negative societal impacts of these activities, such as the perpetuation of criminal activities and the potential destabilization of economies.


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