Finding, freezing and repatriating assets is a long and winding road

How asset tracing and recovery works: a step-by-step guide.

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Finding, freezing and returning assets linked to international corruption and criminal enterprises is a relatively new job that has grown in scope with the development of global legal structures.

The process of repatriating stolen assets generally begins with a freeze placed on accounts where the money or shares are held.

Freezes are political rather than legal decisions, and they are preliminary in nature: authorities instruct banks and other financial institutions to locate and block transactions in accounts associated with the targeted person, group or company.

With a freeze in place, legal efforts to recover assets can begin. Investigators may also assist in finding assets that eluded banks when the freeze was imposed.

These could include accounts and other assets held by another party on behalf of the person or company whose assets are frozen, or assets stored in complex vehicles to disguise their true ownership.

In most developed-world jurisdictions, lawyers then have to prove to a court that assets in frozen accounts are proceeds of corruption or criminal activity. They may also need a judgment from the country from which the money originated, saying the funds are suspect and ordering their return.

Once that legal process plays out, the funds are returned. In cases where the assets are going back to a developing country and concerns remain about public corruption, the World Bank may step in and offer assistance in monitoring how the recipient government uses them.

These steps can take years, even decades, depending on the jurisdictions in which the targeted money is kept and the prevailing laws in the recipient country. Because such cases cross international borders, political negotiations and co-operation often play as big a role as laws in determining whether the money gets returned.

* Asa Fitch