The number of alleged money laundering reports filed with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in the past year has soared to more than five times the level from the previous 12-month period. Figures obtained following a freedom of information (FoI) request show that 112 reports were filed over the year, up from 19. However only four prosecutions were brought.

The FoI request, by Barry Vitou a partner at US firm Greenberg Traurig, asked for figures covering a four-year period. The calendar year 2015 saw the second biggest amount of reports filed, 62.

Barry Vitou, Greenberg Traurig

Barry Vitou

Barry Vitou, Greenberg Traurig

Vitou, head of white collar defence and special investigations at the firm’s London office, said increased pressure from civil society groups as well as politicians has placed the media spotlight on money laundering. ‘These numbers suggest that the publicity has worked and public awareness of the issue is now converting into a large increase in reports of suspected money laundering being filed with the SFO,’ he said. ‘The government’s response has included bringing in the new Criminal Finances Act, beefing up existing money laundering laws and adding new powers.’

Under the Criminal Finances Act 2017, law enforcement agencies have the option of blocking a transaction for up to six months if they receive a suspicious activity report and need the time to investigate it. The act also introduced unexplained wealth orders which can help law enforcement act on and seize suspected corrupt assets. The orders – the first of which was challenged in court last month – have attracted controversy due to their secretive nature.

Vitou added: ‘The combination of extensive new powers, public pressure, a new SFO director [Lisa Osofsky], with an extensive background in anti-money laundering and significant growth in reports add up to more money laundering investigations and enforcement across the board.’

The SFO said the figures did not provide a complete record of all referrals that might have involved an allegation of money laundering because a single referral could relate to a number of different criminal offences but be recorded only under the main offence category. ’The SFO receives reports on possible criminal activity from a variety of sources including law enforcement partners and suspicious activity reports as well as the on-line portal,’ it said in its response.