The government has told the estate agency industry that it has a “moral” obligation to report suspicions about potential money laundering.
Figures released over the weekend show that from April 2017 to March 2018, estate agents submitted 710 suspicious activity reports compared with 5,036 from accountants and 2,660 from independent legal professionals.
Now the Home Office says it is working with professional bodies including the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, the National Association of Estate Agents and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to help agents spot the signs of money laundering and reinforce their legal and moral obligations to report suspicious activity.
It is focusing on agents in a campaign called Flag It Up - which has already been aimed at the legal and accountancy professions.
“Criminals who seek to use this country as a place to launder money should be in no doubt that they have nowhere to hide. Estate agents are a crucial line of defence against them and that’s why they’re under a legal – and moral – obligation to file a report when they spot something amiss” says Ben Wallace, minister for National Security and Economic Crime.
“It’s wrong to think of money laundering as a victimless crime. Those with dirty cash to clean don’t just sit on it – they reinvest it in serious organised crime, from drug importation to child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and even terrorism” he says.
The campaign, which is being promoted through social media, digital advertising and at industry conferences, urges estate agents to file a Suspicious Activity Report to the National Crime Agency when they spot signs such as a client being evasive or contradictory about the source of a large sum of money or using many different bank accounts.
A government statement says estate agents could be prevented from trading or even face prosecution if they fail to comply with money laundering regulations. This could result in unlimited fines or a prison term of up to two years.
“Both small and large estate agencies are susceptible to criminal activity. Houses bought with laundered money often sit empty, taking homes away from the market that could be used for families and having a further negative impact on the wider community” says Mark Hayward, NAEA chief executive.
“By partnering with the campaign, we are pleased to see the Government engaging with the sector to support estate agents in their legal anti-money laundering obligations” he continues.
Flag It Up complements other action taken by the government to target dirty money such as the Criminal Finances Act and tools like Unexplained Wealth Orders and Account Freezing Orders.