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Cryptogambling / UN raises concerns about widespread illicit activities involving crypto in East, Southeast Asia

UN raises concerns about widespread illicit activities involving crypto in East, Southeast Asia

Publish Date: 16/01/2024
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In a recent report titled “Casinos, Money Laundering, Underground Banking, and Transnational Organized Crime in East and Southeast Asia: A Hidden and Accelerating Threat,” the United Nations raised concerns about the widespread misuse of cryptocurrency in East and Southeast Asia.

“A new report issued today has found that casinos, junkets, and cryptocurrency have emerged as a critical piece of the underground banking and money laundering infrastructure in East and Southeast Asia, fuelling transnational organized crime in the region,” said the UN in a press release.

According to the report, organized crime is using cryptocurrency along with the latest tech innovations, posing new and complex challenges for law enforcement.

The report highlights numerous recent cases that show major organized crime groups using online casinos and related businesses to transfer and launder large amounts of state-backed currencies and cryptocurrencies. This has effectively established channels for integrating billions in criminal proceeds into the financial system.

“At the same time, the creation and success of these systems has helped expand the region’s broader, booming illicit economy, in turn attracting new networks, innovators, and service providers to the criminal ecosystem of Southeast Asia and the Mekong,” the report reads.

The report reveals that illegal online casino operators have expanded their operations to include cyber fraud and cryptocurrency laundering. Substantial evidence indicates organized crime influence in casino compounds, special economic zones and border areas.

UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Jeremy Douglas stressed that organized crime groups target areas of vulnerability.

“That said, operations against syndicates in countries including Cambodia and the Philippines have caused a partial displacement, and we have seen criminals moving infrastructure into other places where they see opportunity — basically where they expect they will be able to take advantage and not be held to account, to remote and border areas of the Mekong, and recently elsewhere,” said Douglas.

The report also highlights that criminals utilize technological advancement to operate illegal casinos.

“Recent advances in large language model-based chatbots, deepfake technology, and automation, have given rise to more sophisticated and damaging cyber fraud schemes, posing a major threat to individuals and the formal banking industry,” it reads

They also use another method by establishing illegal gambling and scam operations in underregulated special economic zones and areas controlled by autonomous armed groups.

UNODC analysis indicates that in early 2022, there were over 340 licensed and unlicensed land-based casinos in Southeast Asia. Most of these casinos have transitioned to online platforms, providing live dealer streaming and various proxy betting services.

The online gambling market is expected to surpass $205 billion by 2030, with the Asia Pacific region contributing significantly to the market growth, projected at 37 percent between 2022 and 2026.

Criminals favor Tether

According to the report, financial bad actors in the regions prefer using the Tether (USDT) stablecoin on the Tron blockchain because of its stability, user-friendliness, anonymity and low fees.

Local crypto exchanges could contribute to money laundering due to significant gaps in crime attribution on the blockchain, fabricated reporting by these exchanges and the widespread practice of wash trading. Wash trading inflates crypto transaction volumes, reducing the identification of illicit transactions.

A non-profit group raised a similar concern about criminals preferring the Tron blockchain, specifically Circle’s USD Coin (USDC). Reuters’ investigation also associated Tron with illicit financing in the Middle East. China took action against the use of USDT in foreign exchange in December. Tether, the largest stablecoin with an almost $95 billion market cap, has actively cooperated with U.S. law enforcement.

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