U.K. Police Target Russian Criminal Funds Flowing Through Banks

(Bloomberg) -- Criminals from Russia, Africa and Asia are using U.K. banks to launder money, U.K. police said, warning that foreign government officials are among those benefiting from the hundreds of billions in dirty funds flowing through the country.

Transactions involving the former Soviet Union, Africa, and southern and eastern Asia, are responsible for most of the illegally acquired cash that goes through the U.K. every year, said Donald Toon, the head of economic crime at the National Crime Agency. The official for the police squad, tasked with combating organized crime, was talking to reporters in London.

The NCA has hundreds of cases involving several high-profile suspects and expects many of them to end up in court, Toon said. The warning comes as the U.K. continues to try to counter Russia’s influence in the country, following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in March. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May this month said the men who poisoned Skripal were agents of Russia’s military intelligence service, something the Russian government denies.

“We are absolutely looking at Russians and Russian assets, but not only Russian assets,” Toon said. “This is a very, very attractive place to live, to hold assets, to school children.”

The NCA’s focus -- which includes the recruitment and training of hundreds of specialist investigators into complex crime -- is also a response to the uproar created by recent media coverage of how the U.K. and its overseas territories are used to hide criminal proceeds, including stories about the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers.

British authorities have benefited from new laws that have made it easier to go after sophisticated criminals, including so-called Unexplained Wealth Orders. These force the owners of properties to explain where they got the money to buy assets in the U.K., if there are reasonable grounds for suspicion that the funds are illegitimate.

The NCA has secured orders restricting property worth roughly 25 million pounds ($33 million). Toon said property worth the same amount could be blocked if current suspects don’t cooperate with ongoing investigations. Some of these are linked to Russians, though it’s hard to know to what extent, Toon said. He said he expected to secure several more UWOs in the next six months.

Inquiries into criminal funds span several continents as suspects conceal their money in companies without identifiable beneficiaries. While most U.K. territories, such as the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands, share information about the ownership off locally registered companies, the NCA is struggling to get that data from the Cayman Islands, Toon said.

"We’re having some problems with the Caymans," Toon said. "The Cayman government is entirely aware."

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