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Did 'smart' people avoid the Panama Papers?

The "Panama Papers" leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records has exposed heads of states and public figures around the world sheltering wealth offshore.

Offshore accounts are a traditional way for the wealthy to diversify the location of their investments, benefit from lower tax rates or enjoy lower regulatory oversight.

However, one financial intelligence expert told CNBC that companies and investors could now gain the same benefits from tapping the digital currency sector as from offshoring — and that clued-up ones had probably already opted to do so.

"Maybe companies that had to appear legitimate would have done it (invested in traditional offshore accounts), but really, those just wanting to park money? … I don't think that's being done now by the smart ones," Scott Dueweke, the founder of Zebryx, a digital identity consultancy, said on Tuesday.

The offshore holdings of 140 public figures came to light as a result of the leak from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The sign in front of the building that houses law firm Mossack Fonseca in Panama City, Panama.
EDUARDO GRIMALDO | AFP | Getty Images
The sign in front of the building that houses law firm Mossack Fonseca in Panama City, Panama.

Cryptocurrencies, which only exist online count as digital currencies, but the term also encapsulates fiat currencies when used for online payment and virtual currencies used in online gaming. Digital-only currencies like bitcoin are characterized by their anonymity, with neither payers nor payees required to identify themselves and the system open for anybody to use.

Financial authorities fear this makes them open to abuse for money laundering and criminal and terrorist financing and are increasingly looking to regulate the online platforms that exchange cryptocurrencies for fiat ones.

"There is a shadow banking system that now exists around the world that is capable of moving unlimited amounts of money… They (criminals) know the banking system is well monitored," Dueweke, who has advised the U.S. government and international law enforcement agencies, told CNBC.

With that in mind, he said that offshoring scandals like the Panama Papers would likely be consigned to history.

"I don't think they are going to happen 10 years from now — because why would they bother doing that anymore?" he said.

In October, a report from the U.K. Treasury and Home Office concluded digital currencies were already the preferred method of online payment for illicit goods like firearms and drugs. The report added that the money laundering risk associated with digital currencies was low, but could rise if their use became more prevalent.

A few months later, in January, Dutch authorities arrested 10 people accused of running a bitcoin laundering ring.

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