Money laundering is not a simple concept. It's two simple concepts, because there are two different — in fact, nearly completely opposite — activities that are called money laundering. Here's how to do both of them. (See also: How to Make Moonshine)
Classic Money Laundering
The classic money launderer was someone who had illicit income — drug dealer, jewel thief, con man — and worried that he'd get the Al Capone treatment and be convicted of tax evasion even if the government couldn't pin any of the underlying criminal activity on him.
If the illicit income is small — and especially if you also have a straight job that you do pay taxes on, there's no need to do any money laundering. For example, suppose you work in some cube farm that pays most of what you need to live on, but you also turn the occasional trick to bring in a hundred dollars a week. You probably don't need to launder that money. Cut down on the amount of cash you take from your paycheck and use the money from hooking to make up the difference. As long as you still take some cash from your paycheck, the government would have a hard time proving that your cash expenses exceed what you're taking from legitimate sources.
But suppose that illicit income is a bit larger. Once you've got more than a few hundred dollars a week — more than can be conveniently hidden in your ordinary cash expenses — you've got a problem. As soon as you do anything with the money — spend or invest it — it might well come to the attention of the tax man.
The solution — classic money laundering — is to create a business to ostensibly earn that money. Any business that brings in a good deal of cash will do. You run the business as usual during the day. Then, after closing, you feed in your day's illicit receipts, pretending that they'd been received by the business. In due course the business pays its taxes and all the tax man can see is that you're running an unusually profitable business.
Now, the tax man may well take an interest in such a profitable business, so it's best if it'd be hard to prove that you couldn't be doing the business you're paying taxes on. A bar, for example, wouldn't be the best choice, because you wouldn't have ordered enough booze to pour all the drinks your books will say you've sold. Coin operated laundries and car washes are classics, because the only way to prove that you hadn't actually done all that business would be to have an undercover agent surveil your place for weeks, counting every coin inserted by every customer. (Although agents have been known to subpoena the water bill and try to make the case that way.)
Modern Money Laundering
The other thing sometimes called money laundering is when you have some big lump of cash that you'd rather not have people find out about. Sometimes it's an effort to keep the money from the tax man (literally the opposite of classic money laundering), other times the goal is to keep it from coming to the attention of someone else who might feel like they have some claim to the money — an ex-spouse, a creditor, the guy who owns the land where you found the bag of gold coins in the culvert.
In this kind of money laundering, the point is to make the money disappear. This is the sort of money laundering where you might make use of foreign banks, shell companies, and so on.
There are two parts to these strategies. First, you need to make the money disappear. Second, you need to make it reappear in some gradual fashion that doesn't bring it to the attention of whoever you're trying to hide it from.
Disappearing the money
If you really want to be able to invest the money, get it overseas. If it's an amount that you can just carry with you, buy a vacation package to the Cayman Islands or visit your family roots in Europe and take a little side trip to Switzerland or Austria or Liechtenstein.
There are plenty of fancy, complex ways to get the money overseas, that mostly require an accomplice. The most basic is an invoice scam. Establish a business that imports or exports something. Meet with your customer or supplier and arrange with him to either over-pay or under-bill, and then to have your counterpart deposit (most of) the excess into your foreign bank account. An ongoing scheme is good, because the guy knows that the lucrative cash flow will stop if you find out the money isn't getting deposited as it should, but you can also work this as a one-shot deal if your counterpart can be trusted.
Banks used to help their good customers get money discretely overseas, but nowadays there are a bunch of laws against such things, and bankers are particularly averse to going to jail for their customers. Expect them to refused to get involved and to rat you out.
Reappearing the money
Now we're basically back into classic money laundering territory.
If you stashed a duffel bag full of cash it in a safety deposit box (or under your bed), all you need to do is pull out a few bills now and then when you're heading out for a night on the town. You can raise your standard of living modestly. Alternatively, you could increase the amount that's going into your 401(k) and then use the cash to keep your standard of living about the same — gradually turning the hidden money into above-board money.
If you've got the money overseas somewhere, bring it back in some way that makes it legit. The easiest would be to create an overseas company that then hires you to do something. You do whatever it is and send an invoice whenever you want some cash. You can also reverse the invoice scam that let you get the money overseas in the first place — now you under-pay (or over-bill), while making up the difference out of your foreign bank account. A third option is a fake loan where you "borrow" the money and then simply fail to pay the money back.
Instant disappear-reappear cycles
If you can't wait to reappear the money gradually, and the amount involved isn't too big, you can always use a simple casino scam. Go to a casino and buy some chips. Do a little low-risk gambling. (For example, bet each chip, one at a time, on red. Do that 20 or 30 times and you'll have about the same amount you started with.) Get a few more chips and repeat. Play a few different games (blackjack, craps, slots). Ideally, go to several different casinos and repeat the whole process there. Eventually, cash in all your chips and go home with a story about how you won a bunch of money at roulette. Pay taxes on your winnings.
There are lots of laws against money laundering as a general category and against specific techniques used in money laundering.
If your income is already illegal, breaking one more law may not expose you to much additional risk, but it might, and it might give the government a case that they can prove, rather than one they can't.
You're required to report cash or other bearer instruments (travelers checks, for example, but not gold coins or checks payable to a specific individual) that you carry into or out of the US. Similarly, banks are required to report large transactions (and to keep records of smaller ones).
If you have a foreign bank account, you're required to report it on your taxes each year. Also, if your foreign investments make any income, you're required to pay taxes on it each year (not just when you bring the money back).
Every time you don't declare the income, don't pay the tax due, lie on a form, or fail to file a required form, you're committing a crime.
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