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Turkish social media influencers under scrutiny over money-laundering allegations

Turkish authorities have intensified scrutiny of social media influencers in the country amid growing concerns over money laundering and financial irregularities.

The investigation into Dilan and Engin Polat, a high-profile influencer couple, marked a turning point in Turkey’s approach to the financial activities of social media personalities.

The couple, known for their lavish lifestyle on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, face charges of money laundering, tax evasion and illegal betting. Their arrest last month and the subsequent public revelation of their alleged financial misdeeds have prompted authorities to expand their focus to other influencers.

Following the Polat case, the Turkish Ministry of Trade announced the examination of approximately 600 social media influencers. This scrutiny is primarily focused on their online posts and extravagant lifestyles, which could potentially mask financial irregularities or illegal activities. Influencers under scrutiny are suspected of creating fake invoices for nonexistent products or services, involving simulating high-volume sales or transactions to justify large sums of money entering their accounts.

On Tuesday influencers Bahar and Nihal Candan were also taken into custody by Turkish police over allegations of money laundering. Following two days in detention, they were taken to the Küçükçekmece Courthouse for further proceedings.

The investigation, led by the Küçükçekmece Public Prosecutor’s Office, dates back to 2020. During their interrogation, the Candan sisters denied all accusations. They were questioned about their relationship with Onur Apaydın, the alleged leader of a fraud gang who was arrested in May 2023. Nihal Candan stated that Apaydın, whom she knew as Kaan Hamzaoğlu, was a former boyfriend and that she learned his real identity only after obtaining a restraining order against him.

The investigation also focused on the sisters’ participation in luxury restaurant events, which were allegedly used by Apaydın to gain the trust of his victims. Nihal Candan clarified that she attended these events with Apaydın, believing him to be her boyfriend at the time, and denied involvement in any fraudulent schemes. Bahar Candan mentioned that many celebrities frequented these restaurants.

The sisters denied all allegations of fraud and money laundering and claimed not to recognize the names of certain individuals they were questioned about. Bahar Candan also addressed a social media post where she claimed to have received 12 million Turkish lira in her account, stating it was a typing error and meant as a joke.

Some influencers allegedly set up companies that exist only on paper. These entities are used to funnel illegal earnings under the guise of legitimate business activities.

Influencers’ purchase of luxury items such as real estate, vehicles and jewelry also attract scrutiny as this is a common method for laundering money. Influencers may use illegal funds to acquire these assets, later selling them to legitimize the proceeds.

The influencers’ use of cryptocurrencies for transactions provides a level of anonymity and is difficult to trace, making it a potential tool for money laundering.

Social media platforms inadvertently provide a cover for these activities. The display of wealth on these platforms can be used to mask the illicit origin of funds. Additionally, digital payment systems and online financial transactions offer avenues for moving money discreetly.

The Turkish authorities’ investigation involves a review of social media content, financial transactions and the lifestyle patterns of the influencers.

The Ministry of Trade has also launched the e-Commerce Product Safety Project, aiming to regulate online product sales and ensure compliance with financial regulations. This project will scrutinize products sold via the internet and phone, particularly in response to consumer complaints or through proactive measures by the ministry.

Speaking to Turkish media outlets, psychologists have noted the role of social media in amplifying the display of wealth, potentially leading people to illegal activities for financial gain. The visibility and fame gained through these platforms can transform into a form of capital, driving influencers to maintain and enhance their public image, sometimes through illicit means.

The crackdown on influencers comes amid broader economic challenges in Turkey, including inflation and depreciation of the Turkish lira.

Turkey suffered a lira crash in 2021 that set prices spiraling by 85 percent during a year when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan forced the central bank to slash the key interest rate.

The cost of living crisis pushed Erdoğan into his first election runoff in May. He turned to Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek and a handful of other market-friendly figures to right the economy after winning the vote.

Şimşek wants to take Turkey off a so-called grey list of countries at risk of money laundering and other financial crimes. Paris-based financial watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placed the country on the grey list in 2021.

According to observers, the recent crackdown and scrutiny over money laundering and other criminal activities stem from Turkey’s desire to assert market-friendly policies.

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