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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, let's keep talking about money. Each year, the nation's banks handle tens of millions of transactions and some of them are dirty. Some involve drug money, others involve companies doing secret deals with countries like Iran and Syria in defiance of trade sanctions. But as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, if the Justice Department has its way, banks will be forced to change, to spot illegal transactions and blow the whistle before any money moves through the system.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Federal prosecutors have already collected more than $4 billion from some of the world's biggest financial institutions, banks charged with looking the other way when dirty money passed through their accounts. Carl Levin, a U.S. senator from Michigan, spent more than two years investigating those shady deals. Levin described his findings this way at a recent hearing.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Wrongdoers can use U.S. dollars and U.S. wire transfers to commit crimes, arm terror groups, produce and transport illegal drugs, loot government coffers and even pursue weapons of mass destruction.

JOHNSON: Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer says stopping these kinds of crimes is the goal of the new push against money laundering.

LANNY BREUER: Certainly, one of the things we want to do is not just put criminals in jail, but we want to take away their ill-gotten gains; and we don't want to permit them to use our financial institutions to hide the money that they have stolen.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department is relying on a law called the Bank Secrecy Act. It requires financial institutions to be on the lookout for sketchy transactions. It's a 40-year-old law, but Justice just recently put more energy into enforcing it. Eugene Ludwig led the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the Clinton years.

EUGENE LUDWIG: Willie Sutton, the bank robber, said - they asked him, why does he rob banks? And he said, because that's where the money is. And so why does the banking industry get involved in this? And it's because money flows, go through banks.

JOHNSON: Banks like HSBC, a British bank that agreed a few weeks ago to pay nearly $2 billion to settle money laundering allegations. Another British bank, Standard Chartered, was charged with handling money for companies tied to regimes in Iran, Sudan and Libya. Standard Chartered coughed up more than $200 million to settle those charges last month.

Then, there's the financial service known as MoneyGram. Its international reach comes across in this ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My father lives in Jamaica. Regularly as clockwork...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I send him money with MoneyGram.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He asked me, was it difficult? But I said...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All I do is fill in a transfer form, and then hand over the money.

JOHNSON: MoneyGram recently forfeited $100 million for overlooking widespread marketing scams by its agents. The scam artists preyed on senior citizens and other vulnerable people; 25 agents have been charged with crimes in that case. But Eugene Ludwig, the former currency official, says prosecutors and bank regulators can't catch all the fraud, so they're depending on the banks themselves to do a better job.

LUDWIG: Banks are not set up, historically - really - to be kind of quasi law-enforcement enterprises, which is really what the U.S. government's asking of them.

JOHNSON: Every time a financial institution makes a fix, criminals try to work around it. Ludwig calls it a cat-and-mouse game.

LUDWIG: Fair or not, it's what the government is demanding of our enterprises, and everybody has to face up to that reality, I think.

JOHNSON: Tom Perrelli is a former Justice Department official.

TOM PERRELLI: This area is similar to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act - which has been an area of focus for the Justice Department for some time - are areas where companies can unquestionably, comply with the law; but it requires training, and some constant supervision over personnel all across the world.

JOHNSON: If banks are going to comply, he says, bankers and their lawyers are going to have to do a lot more work this year. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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