Anonymity key to online flow of illicit money transfers

Cybercrime: Experts say there are hundreds of Internet payment systems that do not require users to identify themselves

Written by New York Times | San Francisco | Published: May 31, 2013 1:10 am

NICOLE PERLROTH

Eight years ago,Ernie Allen,the head of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children,called the heads of major banks and credit card companies. Why,he wanted to know,were they letting child pornographers move illicit profits through their systems?

And so began a collaboration between his organization,major banks,credit card companies,Internet service providers,payment processors,and Internet companies like Google and Microsoft. They had hoped to follow the money and quash child pornography for good.

But at some point the trail went cold. For the last year,Allen has been working with global law enforcement and financial leaders to find out why.

He may be getting closer to an answer. Today,cybersecurity experts say billions of dollars made from child pornography and illicit sales of things like national secrets and drugs are being moved through anonymous Internet payment systems like Liberty Reserve,the currency exchange whose operators were indicted Tuesday for laundering $6 billion. Preet Bharara,the United States attorney in Manhattan,described it as the largest online money-laundering case in history.

“What we have concluded is that illegal enterprises — commercial child pornography,human trafficking,drug trafficking,weapons trafficking and organized crime — has largely moved to an unregulated system that is not connected to any central bank or national authority,” Allen said. “The key to all of this has been anonymity.”

Liberty Reserve was shut down last weekend,but cybersecurity experts said it was just one among hundreds of anonymous Internet payment systems. Online systems like WebMoney,Perfect Money and CashU,require little more than a valid e-mail address to initiate an account. The names and locations of the actual users are unknown and can be easily fabricated.

“There are a multitude of anonymous payment systems out there,similar to Liberty Reserve,of which there are over one hundred,” said Tom Kellermann,a vice president at the security company Trend Micro. “Many pretend to ‘know your customer’ but do not actually do due diligence.”

Representatives for WebMoney,Perfect Money and CashU did not return e-mailed requests for comment.

Currency exchanges like Liberty Reserve do not take or make payments of actual cash directly. Instead,they work with third parties that take payments and,in turn,credit the Liberty Reserve account.

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