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ICE targets 700 Miami-area businesses in money laundering investigation

(AP Images/ICE)

(AP Images/ICE)

Federal investigators are targeting 700 businesses in the Miami area for enhanced scrutiny to detect trade-based money laundering schemes involving Latin American criminal organizations, authorities announced Tuesday.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the focus would be on electronics exporters, including those in the cellphone business, in five ZIP codes near Miami International Airport. The targeted companies will be required to file certain Treasury Department forms for transactions over $3,000 rather than the current $10,000 threshold.

In addition, the companies will be required to identify people involved in the transactions, focusing especially on third parties who put up the money to complete the deals. Authorities say the program enhances law enforcement's ability to find and prosecute money launderers, including those in the illicit drug trade, counterfeit merchandise sales and human trafficking.

"It's very prevalent among the electronic exporters," said John Tobon, assistant special agent in charge of ICE homeland security investigations in Miami. "These are items that are very easily sold overseas."

The Miami businesses were not identified by name. Tobon said not all of them are wittingly involved in money laundering, although some are created solely for criminal groups to evade U.S. currency laws. Some legitimate exporters view the complex, often all-cash transactions as necessary for doing business in Latin America.

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"We want to let them know this is not an acceptable business practice," Tobon said.

The new rules, formally known as a Geographic Targeting Order, were issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, which is part of the Treasury Department. A similar order was issued last year covering some 2,000 businesses in the Los Angeles area after raids in that city's fashion district resulted in seizure of $90 million in cash and $30 million in bank accounts traced to Mexican drug cartels.

FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery said her agency would continue issuing such orders "to ensure a transparent financial system that impedes money launderers and other criminals from masking their identity and illicit activity."

The Miami order will remain in effect from April 28 until Oct. 25, although businesses must retain records related to the order for five years after its final date, according to FinCEN.

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