The huge £215,000 fine levied on Countrywide for failing to abide by anti-money laundering procedures is a demonstration that estate agents generally are failing to take the issue seriously.
That’s the view of a leading AML expert, James Dobson.
His remark comes after HMRC revealed on Monday that it had fined both Countrywide and now-defunct online agency Tepilo over £250,000 combined for breaches of AML procedures. HMRC officers had also, separately, made unannounced visits to some 50 estate agency offices across England to check on AML processes.
Now Dobson, who is marketing director of anti-money laundering Proptech platform SmartSearch, has launched a broadside at the agency industry.
“Far too many estate agents are still not taking their money laundering obligations seriously enough.
“It is estimated that around £120 billion of UK property is owned by offshore entities, much of which has been bought with dirty cash. This means that estate agents are a crucial line of defence against money laundering, which is why they have a legal obligation to ensure their AML processes are fit for purpose” he says.
Dobson accepts that complying with AML regulations manually is a cumbersome process, but he says that thanks to technology there are now “a huge number” of electronic solutions.
“Thousands of estate agencies are now turning to electronic AML platforms to complete their AML checks, Global Sanctions and PEP screening” he adds.
“With technology like this available, there is no reason for any estate agents do not have the correct AML processes in place.
“Electronic AML platforms save time, money and are more reliable than manual checks ever can be, giving estate agents the peace of mind that they are stopping money launderers in their tracks, are fully compliant and ready for any spot check HMRC might throw at them.”
On Monday Simon York, director of HMRC’s fraud investigation service, warned: “Estate agents need to understand that criminals prey on weaknesses, so it’s vital they take all steps to protect themselves. The money laundering regulations are key to that, but there’s still a minority of agents who ignore their legal obligations. These inspections are a wake-up call that if you continue to trade illegally we will come knocking.”