What is Smurfing? What Can You Do to Stop It From Happening?
The financial industry has long grappled with threats like transaction laundering.
A study conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reveals that the volume of money laundered each year may be as much as 5% of global GDP. That’s a staggering figure, equating to roughly $2 trillion.
Financial institutions have adopted a variety of strategies to curb this issue over the years. Regardless, criminals always innovate and find new ways to launder money. Enter: smurfing.
How does this second-party fraud tactic impact your business? And, is there anything you can do to keep it from happening in the first place? Let’s find out.
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What is Smurfing?
Smurfing refers to a money laundering tactic by which individuals break up large sums of money into smaller, less noticeable amounts. These smaller amounts are then laundered separately, with the intention of avoiding detection.
[noun]/smûr • fiNG/
As you might have guessed, the term "smurfing" derives its name from the characters of the popular Smurfs cartoon franchise. The name symbolizes the idea of splitting a large amount into numerous smaller portions, akin to the multitude of tiny, virtually identical Smurfs. The term might have its origins in the language used by drug traffickers. They would often buy small quantities of their desired substances or ingredients for drug production from various sources, then use them to create a final product.
Smurfing is closely related to a subset of financial crime tactics known as “structuring.” We’ll get deeper into the distinction between these two terms below.
Smurfing is less of a distinct scam on its own, and more of a tactic to facilitate one. The principle behind smurfing is to stay under the radar by steering clear of transaction thresholds that might otherwise trigger alerts for suspicious activity. By doing so, individuals, often referred to as “smurfs,” can carry out their activities undetected.
In a different context, particularly in professional and real-money gaming, smurfing takes on a new meaning. Here, it involves the creation of multiple user accounts to manipulate gaming platforms or skew ranking systems.
What is the Difference Between “Smurfing” & “Structuring”?
Structuring is a strategy that involves dividing large transactions into smaller amounts. This technique is frequently used by money launderers to make numerous deposits without setting off cash reporting rules. The intention is often to escape the notice of regulatory bodies, and to meet standard reporting norms for anti-money laundering/counter-terrorism financing (AML/CTF) protocols.
As mentioned before, smurfing is related to structuring. And, while both smurfing and structuring involve subdividing large amounts of cash into smaller transactions, the key distinction is in their intention and implementation.
Structuring is generally specific to bank deposits. It’s the deliberate act of making deposits in smaller quantities to dodge reporting regulations. It typically involves a single individual making multiple deposits to a single account that are just under the reporting threshold. For instance, a person might opt to make ten deposits of $9,000 each instead of one lump sum deposit of $90,000, which would necessitate more detailed reporting.
Structuring is mainly used to circumvent reporting obligations. However, the perpetrator may not necessarily be aiming to hide the source of the funds. In contrast, smurfing is primarily used to escape the attention of regulatory bodies, and to disguise the nature and origin of funds. It can also be used in a wide variety of contexts, as we’ll see below.
Common Targets of Smurfing
Smurfing is considered a second-party tactic. Basically, it's money laundering, but scammers do it by breaking large transactions up into multiple smaller, less suspicious transactions. They can then hide their activity by spreading transfers over many different accounts.
That said, smurfing is a broadly applicable tactic. It can be used to conduct a lot of different fraudulent activities. It can also be used to target various different entities, including:
Financial InstitutionsBanks, credit unions, and other financial service providers are often targeted because they deal with immense numbers of transactions each day. It can be easier to hide fraudulent activity in large volumes of transaction data.
Online MerchantsOnline businesses, especially those in high-risk industries like online gaming, can be targets of smurfing. Here, fraudsters attempt to disguise the nature of their activities by making many smaller transactions instead of a few larger ones.
Money Service Businesses (MSBs)MSBs, including currency exchanges, check-cashing services, and money transfer services, handle large amounts of money. They can often be targeted due to the nature of their operations.
Cryptocurrency ExchangesThese platforms have been targeted due to their relative anonymity, even when Know Your Customer (KYC) best practices are implemented. The growing use of cryptocurrencies, plus the anonymity of the market, makes them a convenient way to launder funds acquired through online fraud.
Real Estate IndustryThe real estate industry can be targeted by those looking to buy properties using illicit funds. The scammer can apply for a short-term mortgage, then pay monthly using illegally-acquired funds as a way to launder that money.
Smurfing is a method used to facilitate fraudulent activities, including money laundering and evasion of regulations. Thus, any organization that conducts financial transactions could be targeted. You should be aware of the risk of smurfing and take appropriate measures to detect and prevent it.
How Does Smurfing Work?
So, how do scammers actually engage in smurfing? Here's a general breakdown of how a scheme can work:
Step #1 | Obtain Funds or Information: First, scammers illicitly acquire funds or sensitive data. This can be through various means, such as phishing attacks, credit card fraud, identity theft, or other forms of cybercrime.
Step #2 | Split the Loot: After obtaining these funds or information, scammers break down the loot into smaller portions. The aim is to keep these portions under any threshold that might trigger alerts or scrutiny if used to conduct a transaction.
Step #3 | Dispersal: The smaller portions are spread across multiple accounts or transactions. These could be different bank accounts, credit cards, or even accounts with eCommerce or gaming platforms. The purpose here is to dilute the track of illegal activities and to evade detection systems that could be in place.
Step #4 | Layering: Scammers may add complexity to their smurfing by moving the funds or using the information in complex ways (a process called “layering”). This could involve transferring money between different accounts, purchasing and selling items, or exchanging funds between different currencies.
Step #5 | Use or Sale: Finally, the scammer uses the laundered funds or the acquired goods from the stolen information for their own purposes.
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The main point of smurfing is to remain undetected while carrying out illegal activities. This strategy allows scammers to benefit from their crimes while making it more challenging for authorities to track their actions.
Why Do Scammers Engage in Smurfing?
Dodging detection is a primary motivation. But, it isn’t the only aim here.
There are actually several reasons why a scammer might choose to employ smurfing techniques. For example:
Smurfing provides scammers with perceived advantages. It's important to note, however, that it's still an illegal activity. Smurfs can incur serious consequences, including substantial fines and prison sentences if caught and convicted.
Top 10 Smurfing Red Flags
As we’ve demonstrated, smurfing is a serious concern for individuals, businesses, and financial institutions around the world. But can you spot it before it’s too late?
The answer is “yes,” but you need to know the common signs first. Here are our top ten smurfing red flags to watch for:
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Remember that these are potential red flags. No one sign should be taken as definitive proof of wrongdoing. However, they should trigger further investigation to ensure compliance with AML/CTF regulations.
10 Ways to Prevent Smurfing
First, no matter how well-guarded a business is or how well-trained the staff, there is no way to definitively prevent any act of fraud.
The best chance any business or financial institution has to keep their business safe is to be proactive about fraud, rather than reactive. To that end, multi-tiered fraud prevention strategies that pair modern fraud detection tools with best practices are the most effective solution we have.
A few simple adjustments to internal practices could have a profound impact on your button line. For instance, merchants and banks can take several steps to protect themselves from smurfing, including:
By implementing these practices, banks, and merchants can protect themselves against smurfing and contribute to the broader fight against financial fraud.
Have additional questions about developing a multi-tiered strategy to help you fight back against every type of fraud… even those that haven’t happened yet? Continue below to discover how Chargebacks911® can help your business prevent fraud, recover revenue, and maximize your return on investment.
What does smurfing mean in money laundering?
"Smurfing" is considered a second-party scheme. Basically, it's money laundering, but scammers do it by breaking large transactions up into multiple smaller, less suspicious transactions and spreading them over many different accounts to avoid detection.
What is an example of smurfing?
The real estate industry can be targeted by those looking to buy properties using illicit funds. The scammer can apply for a short-term mortgage, then pay monthly using illegally-acquired funds as a way to launder that money.
Why do money launderers use smurfs?
Criminals engage in smurfing as a way to conduct financial crime while still avoiding detection. The aim is to scatter deposits among many accounts and possibly use varied identities, complicating the process of tracing a direct link between the smurfs, the deposits, and the associated accounts.
What is the penalty for smurfing?
This conduct breaches AML/CTF rules and can attract severe legal penalties for those involved. Engaging in smurfing could result in fines or even jail time, depending on the amount of money being laundered.
Why is it called smurfing?
The term "smurfing" derives its name from the characters of the popular Smurfs franchise, symbolizing the idea of splitting a large amount of money into numerous small, undetectable portions, akin to the multitude of tiny, virtually identical, and hard-to-trace Smurfs.
What is the difference between smurfing and structuring?
While both smurfing and structuring involve subdividing large amounts of cash into smaller transactions, the key distinction is in their intention and implementation. Smurfing is primarily used to escape the attention of regulatory bodies and disguise the actual nature and origin of the laundered funds.
On the other hand, structuring is mainly used to circumvent reporting obligations, but it may not necessarily aim to hide the illicit source of the funds.