The federal government has the authority to criminally prosecute individuals who structure their transactions in a manner that evades the $10,000 reporting requirements. See 18 USC 5324. Penalties range from 5 years in prison, to fines, or both. Enhanced penalties, including up to 10 years of imprisonment, can be assessed in aggravated cases like ones establishing a pattern of illegal activity or involve the violation of other federal laws, like economic sanctions. Of particular interest to the authors of this blog is part (c)(3) of this statute which prohibits individuals from structuring their monetary transactions to or from international locations. The statute states that “no person shall, for the purpose of evading the reporting requirements of section 5316, structure or assist in structuring, or attempt to structure or assist in structuring, any importation or exportation of monetary instruments.” The unfortunate reality of this law is that it targets U.S. persons who have family or friends overseas who may support or depend on one another financially.

Traditionally, federal laws regarding currency transaction reporting (CTR) targeted financial institutions such as banks, currency exchanges, credit unions, and other institutions that deal with large sums of currency. The definition of “financial institution” has always been broader than “depository instititution” and also includes pawnbrokers, travel agencies, and auto dealerships among others. These institutions would have to file a report whenever a currency transaction of over $10,000 took place. The laws never required individual customers to file the actual report, only the financial institution the individual was transacting with had to file a CTR. The obvious reaction by people who wanted to avoid having their transactions reported to the government was to structure their transactions so that no single transaction would be over $10,000. This practice was commonly referred to as “smurfing.” And since the reporting laws only targeted financial institutions, many individuals were able to escape liability. A few unlucky people were prosecuted under 18 USC 371 for conspiring to defraud the United States before any anti-structuring statutes existed, but that was not enough for Congress. Accordingly, in 1986, Congress decided to specifically target individuals who utilized the $10,000 loophole by passing 18 USC 5324.

Somewhat disturbingly, Chapter 53 of the U.S. code also empowers the Department of the Treasury to pay a reward to individuals who provide information which leads to a recovery of a criminal fine, civil penalty, or forfeiture for violations of these reporting and anti-structuring laws. The reward can be as high as 25% of the net amount of the fine, penalty, or forfeiture collected. A law that already targets U.S. persons who have family or friends overseas who may depend on or support one another is exacerbated by the fact that their neighbors now have an incentive to disclose the conduct to the government.

The author of this blog is Erich Ferrari, an attorney specializing in Federal Criminal Defense matters. If you have any questions please contact him at 202-280-6370 or

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