Sunday, June 6, 2010

How to Dry Clean the Money-Launderers


In 2005, $90,000 in cash was found in Congressman William J. Jefferson's (D-LA) freezer, wrapped in foil and stored in a Boca-Burger box. When that news came out, I had two questions: 1) Are vegetarians trustworthy? (Boca-Burgers are vegetarian :^), and 2) Exactly who gave him that money and what did he intend to do with it?

The Serial Numbers on some of the money found in the freezer matched bills given to an FBI informant. Despite the evidence, and the serious charges, Jefferson was re-elected in 2006. He won the Democratic primary again in 2008, but was defeated by a Republican.

In 2009, Jefferson was convicted on several counts, including conspiring to bribe a Nigerian official to aid his business ventures in Africa. However, he got off on the actual bribery charge because the money, having been seized by the FBI, did not actually get to that foreign official. Based on FBI videotapes and other evidence, the $90,000 seized was but a fraction of the hundreds of thousands he solicited while a congressman and co-chair of the caucus on Nigeria and African trade.

Wouldn't it be interesting to know where that money came from? Indeed, would it not be great if we could trace at least some of the cash money seized from drug dealers and other criminals?


A currency counter with counterfeit detection capability is shown above. Machines of this type, which cost less than $500, are routinely used by banks and companies that have to process large amounts of paper currency.

It would be relatively inexpensive to add the ability to read and record the Serial Number of each bill processed, and associate the numbers with the time, date, and location of the counting machine. Indeed, here is a Serial Number recording machine offered for sale to law-enforcement agencies.

If all regulated banks were required to add this capability to their currency counters and ATM machines, and if businesses that deal in cash were encouraged to do so as well, we would have a tidy record of the time and location of many of the bills involved in cash transactions. It would not take much more effort for the computers to also record the account numbers of the people who deposited or withdrew the cash and associate that information with the Serial Numbers as well.

The Serial Numbers on money seized in criminal investigations could be compared to the Serial Numbers on the bank and business records and that would provide the past date and location history of at least some of the bills in that bunch. If the record also included the account numbers of some of the people who handled that cash, that could help trace it and provide clues to the source of the money and perhaps the names of the individuals who would be persons of interest in the crime under investigation.

Ira Glickstein

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