As an investigative reporter, I’m used to not making many friends at work.
Your integrity – and intelligence – is regularly challenged. “It’s complicated,” say the subjects of our investigations into financial crime, tax avoidance and the offshore industry. ‘You have no idea what you are talking about.’
I remember an especially sharp email from a high-paying musician’s rep in response to simple questions about an offshore bank account: “It’s difficult to express astonishment at the receipt of your email in writing. It contains references to allegations of the most bizarre kind. “
To them I say … CAMS!
Earlier this year, I passed a test that allowed me to add four words after my name: Certified Money Laundering Specialist.
The CAMS accreditation granted by a leading Association by anti-money laundering specialists, is primarily intended for people who work in banks, financial services companies and other companies to prevent criminals as much as possible from sending, receiving or moving what we often call “dirty money” or the proceeds from a crime. These are the people who are meant to stop what you see in movies. They know the crux of the matter: a drug cartel sells cocaine, then they count stacks of 100 dollar bills in a kitchen and transfer the money to a secret bank account in Switzerland before buying a luxury condo in Miami.
Stopping this type of wrongdoing is no easy task. Many criminals are much smarter than they were 20 years ago, when it was easier to walk into a hotel with a briefcase full of cash and bribe a foreign official. In addition, these specialists in charge of labeling and blocking criminal cash can sometimes encounter resistance within their own bank – CAMS are often the ones who advise their colleagues to say “no” to potentially lucrative customers.
Talking to such specialists is part of my job as a reporter at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. And that’s not just me. Of Panama papers to FinCEN files, hundreds of reporters working with the ICIJ on our groundbreaking investigation regularly interview anti-money laundering specialists. (Thanks for answering our calls, everyone!)
We ask questions like: Does that sound suspicious? What laws did Deutsche Bank have when it helped the repressive government of Turkmenistan? Send $ 1.6 million to a recently formed mailbox company in Scotland to buy “confectionery”? What legal responsibilities do you have, if any? Lawyers, accountants and bankers before you agreed to partner with Angolan billionaire Isabel dos Santos? What does the United Arab Emirates so stupid?
For a couple of months I set aside an hour or two a day for study. Flash cards? Check. Online Lectures? Check. Practice quizzes? Check. A 316-page memorization manual? Check. I drowned in acronyms: FATF, GAFILAT, NCCT, MLAT, AMLID, MSB, DNFBP.
When I took the exam in March, I felt well prepared. But at several points during the 210-minute test, I was convinced that I would fail. What would i say to my friend Or worse, my bosses?
My friend made a sign to me to celebrate passing the CAMS test.
I passed by and breathed a sigh of relief.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well my work at ICIJ had prepared me.
But what really excited me, aside from my new qualification and nerdy bragging rights, was the realization that years of global collaboration in the offshore financial system has also produced an army of journalists like me with anti-money laundering experience in the workplace. Let’s call it “CAMS-by-doing”.
For more than seven years, I have joined hundreds of reporters from around the world on many of the ICIJ’s best-known financial investigations Swiss leaks to the Panama papers to Leaks in West Africa to the FinCEN files.
Together we read thousands of emails, contracts, spreadsheets, and financial statements. We interviewed thousands of experts. Slowly but surely, journalists like me who have worked on ICIJ research have built a knowledge base that would read like a dedicated CAMS study guide.
Most of us (myself included) are not and never will be experts. But every year we improve our knowledge of where to look and what questions to ask. Our BS-Radar has become more precise, if you will: Why should a Canadian company founded with gold mine in Senegal a company without employees in Mauritius? Why should a Cellist and close friend Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rights to a $ 200 million loan for just $ 1?
Sure, I’m a CAMS now. But the world should be more careful: with years of ICIJ investigations, there are now hundreds of other reporters out there, just like me, better than ever at spotting a seedy deal when they see one. I’m excited to see what we all do next.
Crooks, watch out.