Why should financial institutions prioritise AML?

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There are a huge number of rules and regulations within the financial services sector, and as a result, anti-money laundering (AML) often slips down the priority list.

Many firms just don’t see themselves at risk of money laundering, especially given its reputation as a cash-based crime. But the fact is, money laundering is more of a threat than it has ever been. The shift to digital commerce – accelerated by the pandemic – has resulted in huge adoption of alternative payment services, and the anonymous nature of these digital payment, investment and banking channels make it easier for bad actors to hide their identities and the source of their funds.

This rise in alternative payments – combined with the rise in alternative currencies like crypto – has created a whole host of new opportunities for bad actors to hide their illicit activities, putting financial institutions at heightened risk of becoming enablers of money laundering and other financial crime.

The only way financial institutions can prevent money laundering, which, apart from being a crime, is an enabler of serious organised crime, and avoid the fines and reputational damage they would be subject to for non-compliance, is to make AML a priority.

Just this week, The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) fined Guaranty Trust Bank UK almost £7.7m for ‘serious weaknesses in its AML systems and controls, while in December, Santander UK was fined £107.7m for ‘repeated AML failures’ and while banking giants like these may be able to afford these sort of penalties, smaller financial institutions would fold if hit with such enormous fines.

And even if the big banks are able to survive the financial hit of the fine itself – what about the reputational damage? According to research by FICO, 56% of Brits would leave their bank if it was involved in a money laundering scandal, while data from Themis shows that banks that do find themselves caught up in money laundering scandals, see they share price slump 21% on average.

“Having proper AML processes in place is not only a legal and moral obligation, but it makes business sense,” says Martin Cheek, Managing Director at money laundering experts SmartSearch.

“Financial institutions found to have AML failures not only risk huge financial losses as a result of money laundering activities themselves, but also risk losing customers, and a fall in the value of their business.

“Often, financial institutions don’t prioritise AML because they don’t think they are at risk, or the think it will be too expensive to invest in an electronic AML platform - but these assumptions are both wrong.

“All financial institutions are at risk of money laundering, so it does need to be a priority for firms, but it doesn’t need to be expensive. The best way to put an affordable and reliable AML process in place is to use a third-party AML provider.

“Cloud-based AML platforms can be integrated with financial institutions’ existing systems to enable AML checks to be done at onboarding stage, so customers – individual and business - can be identified, verified, and screened in a quick, easy and non-intrusive way.

“Once the checks are done, the secure, cloud-based system will keep a record of all the results and monitor the entire database for any changes to customers’ risk profiles, giving financial institutions the peace of mind that they are meeting their AML obligations.”

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