The United Kingdom’s fraud agency has seen a sharp rise in the number of money laundering reports, which could be due to increased pressure from anti-corruption groups for the government to address money laundering, according to financial crime lawyer Barry Vitou.
Reports received by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in the last reported 12-month calendar period soared more than five-fold to 112 over the number the year before, said Vitou, who is the head of white collar defence, London unit, at law firm Greenberg Traurig.
“Increased pressure from civil society groups like Transparency International as well as politicians have placed the media spotlight on money laundering and the UK’s alleged role in it,” he said.
“These numbers suggest that the publicity has worked and public awareness of the issue is now converting into a large increase in reports of suspected money laundering being filed with the Serious Fraud Office.”
The UK government response has included bringing in the new Criminal Finances Act, beefing up existing money laundering laws and adding new powers, such as unexplained wealth orders, said Vitou.
“Unexplained wealth orders have also been created as an investigative tool to help law enforcement act on suspected corrupt assets.
In addition to the ability to freeze assets, UWO’s require property owners to explain how they obtained their wealth.
“If the explanation is insufficient or the recipient refuses to comply with the order then further proceedings can be started by law enforcement agencies, which must be defended, to recover assets.
“Where the recipient of the order has failed to comply with the Unexplained Wealth Order then there is a presumption that the property can be recovered,” Vitou explained.
Over the years, anti-corruption campaigners and journalists have highlighted flaws within the UK’s anti-money laundering regime, and are increasingly calling on the government to do more to tackle such issues.
Scandals such as the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers have also raised serious questions about the UK’s efforts to address issues such as corporate secrecy, tax evasion and avoidance.
An SFO spokesman said: “While the SFO investigates money laundering allegations, typically where we are also investigating the alleged predicate offence, the lead agency for inbound money laundering is the National Crime Agency.
“The nature and size of our cases are such that they greatly vary year on year, as we take on a small number of cases depending on suitability for the SFO’s model.”