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Professor Ruehsen Brings Global Financial Crime and Prevention Course to Middlebury College

Global financial crime is on the rise, says Middlebury Institute Professor Moyara Ruehsen, and so are career opportunities related to fighting it.

As head of the Institute’s Financial Crime Management program, Ruehsen frequently talks to employers who are eager to hire graduates for these careers, whether in private-sector compliance and investigations, government intelligence, training and research with multilateral organizations, or anti-corruption compliance for NGOs. It was in a conversation last year with one of those employers, however, that Ruehsen learned something new: applicants with undergraduate degrees are in demand as well.

That conversation, in part, prompted Ruehsen to propose a class for undergraduate students at Middlebury College. With support from Jeff Cason, Middlebury’s provost and executive vice president, Ruehsen worked with the College’s Curriculum Committee to get Global Financial Crime catalog and Prevention added to the course this past spring as an interdepartmental offering.

The catalog described the course, which Ruehsen taught remotely from the West Coast, as covering the “many techniques that criminals use to launder money, including traditional money laundering schemes, trade-based laundering techniques, cryptocurrencies, and shell companies.” Students would learn “how to screen for and investigate crimes, including corruption, sanctions evasion, terrorism financing, proliferation financing, etc., and what multilateral organizations are doing to promote best practices.” The class filled up so fast that Ruehsen ultimately admitted 26 students, up from the planned 21 or 22.

Investigating a Crime

On the first day, Ruehsen had the students act as financial crime investigators and try to identify a crime. In her hypothetical scenario, a shipment of wines and computers traveled from Australia to the Middle East and eventually to Sicily. The students were able to look at all related information, including individual bank transactions, maps, and more.

Many of the students, particularly the economics majors, focused on the financial records. But Ruehsen was hoping they’d spot red flags in other areas as well. For instance, one of the destinations, Tajikistan, is a poor, Islamic country, making it an unlikely destination for fine wines or source for high-tech computer equipment. It also borders Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium. In the end, Ruehsen revealed the hidden crime: a heroin operation was shipping precursor chemicals from Australia, routing them through Tajikistan for processing, and ultimately getting them to Sicily for further refinement.

The scenario was intended to show students that financial crime investigation isn’t only about following the money trail; Familiarity with geography and international politics is critical. “I tell my students that the most important skill they need is curiosity and general knowledge about the world,” Ruehsen says, encouraging them to read the Economist every week. “Most of the transactions they’re going to look at are international in scope, whether they’re working for a large multinational bank or a cryptocurrency exchange.”

Over the semester, Ruehsen admits, she gave students “a lot of projects.” These included using real online resources (but not real money or personal information) to create shell companies to better understand how they can be used to hide illicit transactions. A group project required students to put together a “geographic money-laundering risk model,” a measure that financial institutions use to gauge the relative risk of doing business with various customers based on geographic factors. In another project, students had to write suspicious activity reports (SARs) based on a hypothetical case.

Ruehsen also had students graphically diagram an international money-laundering operation. (Ruehsen notes that money laundering is broadly defined as moving the proceeds of a crime to hide its origins.) “That was a new skill set for a lot of them, where you have to illustrate a case in a way that somebody who isn’ t in the class could understand what’s actually happening,” she says. She noted with interest that no two students illustrated the crime the same way. “But it gets them to think about how to convey information in a clear and effective manner.”

Broad Skills Required

Financial crime management used to be dominated by lawyers, Ruehsen says, because much of the work involves regulatory compliance. But to communicate those policies and procedures, investigators “have to be able to write up a narrative in the suspicious activity report that goes to law enforcement.” And good writers are needed, she says, noting that around 2.5 million SARs are filed each year. She adds, “A lot of them are not well written and don’t provide the actionable intelligence that will help law enforcement pursue their target or help prosecutors prosecute their target.”

Grace Carroll ’22 signed up for Ruehsen’s class to fulfill a requirement of her international and global studies major. She was surprised to discover that the course was not, in fact, heavily catered to economics majors. She was also surprised to learn that over $2 trillion is laundered globally every year.

Carroll liked the way the course challenged her. “We projects in which we were completed asked to pretend to be criminals and imagine how we would process illicit transactions. The idea is that by understanding how the criminals think, we will be better equipped to stop them.”

Ruehsen says the knowledge that you are fighting crime is part of what makes a career in this field so compelling. “You’re monitoring for suspicious transactions and not only protecting your institution from reputational damage and potential fines, but you’re also helping to catch criminals.”

Tangible Results

If Ruehsen intended for this course to get Middlebury College undergraduates excited about global financial crime and prevention, she succeeded: one of her students will be attending the Institute to study further in the fall, and at least two others—including Carroll—have already been hired in the industry.

“I totally did not expect to end up in this field,” Carroll says, “and if you had told me even last semester that I would be working in financial crime prevention for a giant Swiss bank after graduation, I wouldn’t have believed you!”

Given Ruehsen’s busy schedule and the logistical challenges of lining up courses between the Institute and the College, she isn’t sure yet whether she’ll be able to offer the class again. But she wants to be sure that students—whether at the graduate or undergraduate level—know about the extent of global financial crime today and the growing number of jobs that exist to combat it. “There are exciting careers to be had in this space,” she says, “where you can have enough remuneration to pay off those student loans at the same time that you are creating a social good.”