Corrupt elites usually invest a lot of resources in hiding their illicit funds, but that clashes with their tendency – or that of their relatives – to brag on social and regular media about their riches. Joseph Sinclair and Umedjon Majidi, current students on our MA Corruption and Governance course, look at the increasing use of social media in money laundering and corruption investigations.
When Naulila Diogo flew from Luanda to New York, she might not have expected the furore that followed. She was wedding-dress shopping. To her it was normal to spend over $200,000 at the luxury dress-maker, Kleinfeld. There was no problem featuring on the popular TV show, “Say Yes to the Dress”.
She is described in the show as “…royalty in her country”. What struck Angolan viewers was that Naulila was Bornito de Sousa’s daughter. He was a cabinet minister who had boasted about not taking a government salary. He was seen as incorruptible. His daughter’s act eviscerated that image. As put by a Zimbabwean blogger, “[$200,000] is a LOT of money!! So much question is how much did the wedding cost? I can’t even imagine how lavish it was!” Although no action followed, Naulila became a symbol of the billions in missing natural resource wealth from the Angolan government’s purse in a country mired with avoidable poverty.
Others have not put their foot in it as badly as Naulila. But it is a recurring theme. Children and family members often unwittingly expose the proceeds of questionable income on social media and are increasingly becoming a valuable source for investigators. For El Chapo’s sons, Instagram was a means to show off wealth gained from trafficking drugs: guns, cars and exotic animals. For others, it seems to simply be an accurate reflection of the life they have always lived. Their selfies provide an unwitting insight into the whereabouts of syphoned funds.
Latinen and Loynes found that over one-third of adults on social media leave their pages open to the public. Speaking to the Guardian in 2016, KR Intelligence said that social media is frequently used in private litigation to provide the wherewithal to freezing and seizing assets. Often social media posts not only show what they own, but where it is being held. It might not just be the expensive car, yacht, or designer watch, but the art on the wall of a holiday home. Or the home itself.
Habitual posters can reveal behaviour patterns that pin-point people to specific locations, or provide accurate data to predict their whereabouts at a given time. Indeed, her on-going Snapchat posts were attributed to robbers in Paris discerning Kim Kardashian’s whereabouts, leading to them stealing $9m in jewellery. For the FBI, Ray Hushpuppi’s Instagram posts of lavish living to his 2.4m followers allegedly revealed his part in a $138m money laundering conspiracy.
In the UK, social media played an important role in freezing Luca Filat’s assets. His father, Moldova’s former prime minister, had been imprisoned for assisting in the theft of $1bn from three Moldovan banks, equivalent to 12.5% of the country’s GDP.
A year after his father’s arrest, Luca arrived in London to study and quickly made his mark. His lavish spending is well-reported: a £390,000 upfront payment for a penthouse in Cadogan Square and a £200,000 Bentley, among other things. Photos taken from Facebook show him spraying €500 bottles of Dom Perignon and fist bumping a friend atop a G-class Mercedes. The NCA were able to get orders against Luca’s bank accounts with a total balance of £466,321.72.
Another example is Bellingcat’s investigation following the murder of Aierken Saimaiti, the money launderer who had assisted members of the Kyrgyz elite take money from Kyrgyzstan. Saimaiti had told journalists he laundered £5.65m into the UK for the benefit of Raimbek Matraimov, the deputy chief of the Kyrgyz Customs Service. Bellingcat say he “…is notorious for his family’s lavish lifestyle, seemingly at odds with the salary of a career public servant”.
Although the family deny the allegations, credence is given to them by his son’s expensive private education and habit for expensive watches. Instagram photos show Raimbek’s son, Bakai, putting up his middle finger with a Hublot watch on his wrist. Two other photos reveal a penchant for watches valued in the tens of thousands.
Bakai and Luca show the real value of monitoring family members’ open source and social media postings in discerning the whereabouts and ownership of questionable assets. But people are getting savvy. K2 told the Guardian that the super-rich were increasingly seeking help in devising social media policies for posting content.
While investigators become entangled to their eyeballs in shell companies and structures put in place to obfuscate ownership, social media posts may yield fruit of that vital connection. They may at the very least allow inference about a lifestyle over a long period of time inconsistent with one’s known earnings. This may be of particular use in the UK when seeking unexplained wealth orders. While already significant, we are likely to see social media playing an even more important and central role in investigations in the coming years.