AML: 4 Red Flags for Law Firms

Law firms are often targeted by money launderers because of the position of trust they hold in society. Solicitors often handle large amounts of money confidentially for their clients such as escrow on sale transactions or access to their trust accounts. Because of this, a solicitor’s client account can be a convenient way to add a layer of legitimacy to transactions.

For law firms in NZ, the relevant anti-money laundering legislation found in the AML/CFT Act 2009.

In this guide we’ll be looking at the most common red flags that law firms should be aware of when on the lookout for suspicious activity indicative of money laundering.

Client red flags

It’s important to use a critical eye when it comes to your clients and prospective clients. There are several factors that would be a reason for your team to consider whether to carry out enhanced due diligence. These would be things such as:

  • If your clients are PEPs (Politically Exposed Persons) or are HNW individuals (High Net Worth individuals)
  • The presence of cash-intensive businesses such as a hair salon, barber or restaurant that could act as a front for money laundering. 
  • If your client is acting secretively, or in a way that is obstructing you getting all the information you need
  • If your client cannot be found on the internet, or is a business owner but operates using a free-to–use anonymised email address such as Gmail or Yahoo.

The presence of any of these factors doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot act for these individuals, but your firm-wide risk assessment should detail what you are willing to tolerate, along with the policies, controls and procedures in place to give the firm comfort in these instances.

Transaction party red flags

This is particularly useful to look out for when looking at trusts, trustees, and beneficiaries.

  • Is the age of the parties unusual? 
  • Is there a logical connection between all parties (for example, it may be suspicious if working with a family trust but a beneficiary is requested to be added who has no relation to the family). 

If there are unexplained beneficiaries in the trust or the reason, structure, or jurisdiction is not immediately clear, this would warrant a closer look.

Transaction red flags

Red flags relating to the nature of the transaction include:

  • if your transaction is unusually large or complex for that client (if you have undertaken work for them before), 
  • if you notice that it involves jurisdictions that have minimal AML laws, or 
  • if the transaction involves using shell companies for reasons that are not clear. 

Source of funds red flags

Understanding the source of funds is critical when considering your AML obligations. When looking at funds used in a transaction, watch out for:

  • A third party supplying the funds with no connection to the transaction
  • The funds being sent from a foreign country with no connection
  • Large amounts of cash being used with vague explanations as to its origins

Other flags if it’s a property transaction include: 

  • No mortgage being required on a property
  • An unusual ownership structure or sudden changes (e.g. flipping)

  • There being multiple owners on a property (especially when their shareholding falls just shy of triggering reporting requirements)
  • Sale price being lower than market value (or what would reasonably be expected)

Conclusion

Just asking the question, “does this make sense?” is an important part of playing the gatekeeper role and ensuring that your firm is not used for money laundering purposes. 

If you come across one of the red flags described (keeping in mind this is not an exhaustive list), you need to ask more questions and collect further documentation/evidence until you reach a level of comfort about going ahead with the piece of work. If this evidence cannot be provided, you can either decide not to work with that client, and/or consider filing a SAR (Suspicious Activity Report).

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