Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The federal ‘structuring’ laws are smurfin’ ridiculous

It seems appropriate that the crime of structuring is also sometimes called smurfing. Generally speaking, structuring is the act of breaking up financial transactions to get around the federal reporting requirements that kick in for transactions over a specific amount of money. The alternate term smurfing is a reference to the children’s cartoon in which a large entity (the Smurf Village) is made up of several smaller ones (the Smurfs themselves).

But if you grew up on the cartoon in the 1980s, or were unfortunate enough to have seen the 2011 movie, you’ll also know that the word smurf itself is rather ambiguous. It can mean whatever the person using the word wants it to mean. And that’s a pretty decent metaphor for how structuring laws function in the hands of federal officials.

First, a little background: Most structuring cases stem from a 1970 law called the Bank Secrecy Act, which requires banks to report any deposits, withdrawals, or transfers of more than $10,000. The law has since been revised several times, but generally it’s intended to make it easier for the government to track tax cheats, money launderers, illegal gambling operations and other criminal enterprises.

But the Bank Secrecy Act also requires banks to report to the federal government any activity from customers that might be construed as structuring deposits to avoid the reporting requirement. So if you have $100,000 to deposit in your bank account, and you deliberately choose to deposit that money in increments of $9,999 so your bank won’t automatically notify the federal government, you’re guilty of structuring. It’s a felony punishable by a fine and/or up to five years in prison.

Your bank is also required to report any suspicious activity by its customers. Moreover, your bank is prohibited from letting you know that it has reported you to the government. Banks that fail to sufficiently police their customers or banks that notify customers that they’ve been reported for suspicious deposits risk financial sanctions. Bank personnel found to have neglected their duties to report suspicious customer behavior can also be criminally charged and sent to prison. So there’s quite a bit of incentive for your bank to give you up, and to cast a wide net around what constitutes “suspicious activity.” There’s lots of risk in under-policing for structuring, and virtually no risk of losing customers due to a policy of over-reporting them to the government. Most customers will never know.

The problem of course is that when you force banks to cast such a wide net, they’re going to report a lot of people who have done nothing wrong. And some of those people are going to find themselves in legal trouble. A top bartender who makes, say, $2,000-$2,500 per week in tips might make regular monthly deposits of over $9,000, but less than $10,000. It isn’t illegal to deposit $9,500 in your bank account. It’s only illegal if you’re doing so because you don’t want your bank to report the deposit to the government. That’s a pretty thin line between an innocuous activity and a felony.

There also may be some people who quite understandably don’t want to draw attention to themselves or their businesses, and so might keep their deposits under $10,000 to avoid having those transactions reported, without knowing that doing so is illegal.

Full article: http://www.washingto … -smurfin-ridiculous/

Share on Tumblr Flattr this