The stink of money laundering

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Have you ever fibbed slightly about what you do for a living (that you work in AML) in order to avoid yet another tedious story about someone’s grandma who was with her bank for 312 years and STILL had to prove her identity when she wanted to pay in a cheque for £3 million when she sold her council house?  I know I have: I just say I work in finance, which gets rid of most people pretty sharpish.  And of course the more rabid end of the press is full of tales of woe from people who have been asked to take in their passport to their local bank branch or give an explanation for source of funds and really don’t think they should have to.  Which is what made me sit up and take notice – and cheer rather loudly, which startled the office cat – when I read this on one of my news alerts at the weekend.

On the This is Money website, financial journalist Tony Hetherington responded to a question from “Ms J W”, which was this: “I have had my Barclays accounts since 2014, when I was a student, before moving to Gibraltar.  My balances of almost £25,000 have been wiped clean by the bank, without notice.  All my transactions are normal, but now I am left with no money.”  I sighed, expecting the usual “poor you, you’ve been caught in the fiendish web of over-zealous AML checks, I will take up the cudgel on your behalf and here’s hoping the ill-informed and overly-pedantic bank staff learn their lesson” – but no!  Mr Hetherington’s response is entirely unexpected.

“I receive letters like yours quite often.”  (I bet he does.)  “If a bank suspects a customer of money laundering, it must freeze the account.  This does not mean the money is lost, but it is temporarily blocked.”  (Excellent explanation.)  “That’s what I thought had happened, but your own experience is more serious.  The National Crime Agency uncovered evidence that you and other current or former overseas students at British universities were laundering criminal cash from China.  NCA investigators won a court order to freeze 95 bank accounts holding about £3.6 million – rather more than you might expect to be held by students or recent graduates.  More than a dozen pages of evidence about your own accounts” (a dozen pages – I’m now wondering why on earth Ms J W wrote in in the first place) “highlight three deposits at a bank in Wood Green in London: £4,000, another £4,000, and then £3,560.  These separate deposits were made in cash over the space of seven minutes.  Four days later, there were three separate cash deposits in less than 30 minutes at a bank in Knightsbridge, totalling £8,000.  And two days after that, more than £3,000 in cash was deposited at a bank in Canary Wharf.  On the day those deposits were made in Wood Green, your debit card was used repeatedly in Gibraltar and you have confirmed to me that you were there.  You have told me that the cash deposits in London were made by a currency exchange firm that turned Chinese funds into sterling, though why the firm would make multiple cash deposits just minutes apart is unexplained.  It has the stink of money laundering and the NCA was completely right to take action.”

Mr Hetherington, you have restored my faith in financial journalism – and I may have your final sentence printed onto a t-shirt to wear under my work clothes (no-one will see it, but I’ll know it’s there and will take succour from it at difficult moments).