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UK’s NCA plans to freeze 95 'money mule' accounts in one day

Monday, 4 March, 2019

The National Crime Agency (NCA) and other law enforcement bodies plan to freeze 95 bank accounts containing GBP3.6 million in one day, based on suspicious activity reports submitted by a single bank.

The accounts are held mainly by overseas students studying in the UK, who appear to have been targeted by organised crime groups to launder the proceeds of crime. Such individuals are sometimes known as 'money mules,' because they often do not know what the third party is really using the account for, and may not know that operating a bank account in this manner is potentially illegal. Certain international students are more at risk, especially where their home country applies controls and limits to personal foreign exchange transactions. Criminals will then seek to circumvent those controls by taking advantage of legitimate routes for sending money overseas.

For example, in one case, international transfers from China were declared as financial support to an overseas student but then used by criminals for non-student related activities. The funds sent to the accounts were used to buy goods that were exported to China without any connection between the party ordering the goods and the source of the funds into the account.

According to the NCA, the tell-tale signs that indicated the accounts were being used for money laundering included cash payments directly into accounts from so-called automated service devices, and small and frequent cash deposits to break up large transactions into smaller transactions below the reporting threshold ('structuring' or 'smurfing').

The accounts were identified by a particular UK bank through their anti-money laundering procedures. This bank, says the NCA, took a 'ground-breaking stance to cooperate on a wholesale, evidential basis from the outset'.

Once reported, the case was passed to officers from the newly formed National Economic Crime Centre (NECC). NECC asked the NCA, HMRC, the Metropolitan and City of London police forces, various regional organised crime units, and Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate to make freezing order applications simultaneously to six magistrates' courts to secure the assets pending their investigation and seizure, if it is shown that the funds are the proceeds of crime or were intended to be used in unlawful conduct.

The NECC is part of the UK government's serious and organised crime strategy, launched in October 2018, and aimed particularly at 'professional enablers' who facilitate the money laundering process.