With a website claiming more than 200 employees and an office in a business complex in the middle of Singapore, Ask Trading — “a trading and investment company focusing on the Russia/CIS market” — might appear to be a thriving midsize business.
But actually it’s a mirage. Under even the slightest scrutiny, it starts to disappear.
That office, BuzzFeed News discovered during a visit, is just a few sparsely populated cubicles. The company’s current website is only one page, and photographs on it were lifted from published materials about other firms. And public records show Ask was not doing what it claimed to do.
Yet between 2001 and 2016, it managed to move at least $671 million in transactions through Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of New York Mellon, from sources no one at those banks ascertained, for purposes it never revealed.
Shell companies like Ask Trading keep a low profile, but they play an outsize role in the dark economy, the trillions of dollars of dirty money that course through Western banks in full view of government regulators.
As documented in the FinCEN Files, thousands of secret government documents that BuzzFeed News shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 news organizations around the globe, these so-called shell companies can be a conduit for terrorist networks, narcotraffickers, and crime syndicates to launder the proceeds of their illegal activity. The money goes into an account at a prestigious international bank, and when it emerges, cleansed of any taint, just a few more clicks can move it from one country to another to fund more mayhem and misery.
By law, banks are supposed to be on the lookout for transactions that bear hallmarks of money laundering or other financial misconduct, then report their concerns to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN. Such reports can support investigations and intelligence gathering — but by themselves they are not evidence of a crime. Banks have broad discretion to end their relationship with the customers whose accounts they find suspicious. But in the FinCEN Files they rarely do.
Dozens of banks around the globe opened their doors to Ask and the network of companies connected to it. Bankers documented their concerns, but still went on to process nearly a billion dollars’ worth of their transactions.
And not just any transactions. According to government documents, Ask used the banks to send $4 million to a United Arab Emirates–based company for what it said were construction materials. The US government later said the company was part of an organization financing drug cartels and terrorist organizations such as the Taliban. Ask received $17 million from a money laundering…