Legal moves to combat money laundering go only so far, reports Hamish Fletcher.

Almost $8.5 billion worth of fishy transactions were reported to authorities in the past year, as New Zealand tries to rid itself of the stench of dirty money.

That's enough to buy at least 5,000 houses in Remuera, or almost every one in Rotorua.

It's also more than double the amount that financial institutions and casinos flagged to police in the year to June 2014.

While only a handful of these transactions are likely to have been crooks laundering ill-gotten gains, it's no secret that New Zealand is awash with tainted cash.

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The last time officials took a stab at it, they estimated about $1.5 billion of dirty money was being laundered here each year.

Others speculate that the real amount is much, much more.

Whether the money is funnelled through a New Zealand shell company or into the booming Auckland property market, the purpose of this laundering is simple: to disguise the profits of crime as bona fide earnings so they can be spent with impunity.

In an effort to stem the flow of dirty money, since 2013 some 2,000 institutions, from fund managers and derivatives issuers to debt collectors, money changers and casinos, have been required to have systems guarding against money laundering.

Those who don't comply can face fines or even jail time, though so far the regulators in charge of the regime have only issued warnings.

As a result of the law change, Justice Minister Amy Adams told a conference in July, it was now "much more difficult and costly" to launder criminal proceeds through this country.

"We are committed to sending a clear message that crime is not profitable in New Zealand."

Despite this, the Government doesn't appear to be in any rush to widen the anti-money laundering rules as originally envisaged in the 2009 legislation, to include lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and businesses that deal in high-value goods, such as auctioneers and bullion dealers.

Most commentators say real estate agents, lawyers and accountants should be subject to anti-money laundering legislation. Photo / File
Most commentators say real estate agents, lawyers and accountants should be subject to anti-money laundering legislation. Photo / File

Asked about extending the rules, Adams' office will say only that officials have been asked to do some work on the second phase of anti-money laundering legislation, but there is no timetable for change.

Institutions that are covered by the law must perform due diligence on customers, monitor accounts and report suspect transactions to police.

This has resulted in a surge of these reports, which Adams has called an "invaluable tool" in helping authorities to "follow the money" when uncovering serious crime.

The value of the transactions in the reports has also skyrocketed, jumping from $545 million in the year to June 2013, to $3.5 billion in 2014. That total soared again, to $8.4 billion this year, despite the number of reports remaining static.

The amounts involved could balloon even further, particularly if the Government does follow through on plans to widen anti-money laundering regulations to other sectors.

While the likes of real estate agents, accountants and lawyers must file suspicious transactions reports in some circumstances and perform basic due diligence, rules under the anti-money laundering laws are more strict.

Most commentators agree that having these professions covered by anti-money laundering laws is an essential part of helping to curb the movement of dirty money and cut the crime that criminal funds support.

"They are potentially a very powerful tool, there's no question," says Ron Pol, a Wellington adviser and researcher on anti-money laundering measures.

People such as lawyers, real estate agents and accountants often have more day-to-day contact with a client and are the ones responsible for structuring deals, he says.

A property transaction, for example, might go through a bank without raising any red flags, but the purchaser turning up to the lawyer's office to sign the paperwork could be a 22-year-old unemployed student wanting to buy a $2 million home.

The director of anti-money laundering consultancy AML Solutions, Richard Manthel, says there are "strong reasons" why real estate agents, lawyers and accountants should be captured by the legislation.

"However, this will require a law change and significant compliance and monitoring within these sectors," Manthel says. Just who regulates these professionals is another matter to work through, he says.

$2 trillion is believed to be laundered each year from the proceeds of some of the worst criminal activities here and overseas ... with as little as one-fifth of 1% stopped by authorities. This suggests anti-money laundering legislation is the least effective of any anti-crime measure, anywhere.

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New Zealand is giving overseas criminals an advantage over their local counterparts in evading seizure of ill-gotten gains, says anti-money laundering adviser and researcher Ron Pol.

New Zealand police asset recovery units have been chasing and seizing the proceeds of crime since the end of 2009.

By the middle of this year they had obtained forfeiture orders over almost $60 million worth of assets and had restrained other assets worth a further $218 million.

While the police have become good at seizing criminals' assets, Pol says, their main focus has been on "bit players" and local drug dealers.

"Notwithstanding perennial underfunding, that's probably more the result of legislative restraints than any capability issues. My guess is that they probably can see much bigger pools of criminal funds, but often can't do much about it.

"That's because when police are alerted to suspicious transactions, they can much more easily prosecute a local drug dealer previously unknown to them and confiscate a few houses bought with the proceeds of criminal operations, than the Mexican drug cartel, corrupt Chinese official or Russian criminal gang that might have bought 60 houses last month."

Police can visit a New Zealand property, find a P-lab and gather enough evidence to prove the drug operation paid for that house and other expensive assets.

But this is not always the case if the criminal offending occurred overseas.

Pol says this is because New Zealand's laws make it more difficult to hold money launderers to account or seize assets if the offending that paid for them happened outside the country, even if it is obvious to authorities that they are looking at criminal funds.

He gives as an example someone fronting as a rich overseas investor and using a local real estate agent to buy houses, putting money for the purchases through a local law firm's trust account.

Even if police have information that the investor is a professional launderer for a drug cartel, proving the "predicate crime" that generated the money could be difficult.

And the local professionals involved in the purchase — whether they are accountants, lawyers or real estate agents — would have only basic obligations to spot dodgy transactions, as they are not required to perform the same level of checks as banks.

"They may not even think to ask where the money really came from," Pol says.

Four ways to cleanse your filthy lucre

Commonly bought for cash, gold's anonymity makes it difficult to track. Photo / iStock
Commonly bought for cash, gold's anonymity makes it difficult to track. Photo / iStock

The casino

You still have to play the odds, but gambling has long been a method to turn bad money into good. You turn up with dirty currency, place bets at tables or slot machines and any winnings are clean cash. Even if you lose half of what you started with, the remainder carries an air of legitimacy. Or just gamble for a while, accept any losses, and cash in your remaining chips.

In reality, casinos are on the watch for this sort of behaviour and are likely to report suspicious transactions to the police. As such, big time launderers are likely to look elsewhere unless they think they can beat both the house and the authorities.

Real estate

As well as being a way to upgrade your lifestyle, using ill-gotten gains to buy property is a popular way to launder funds the world over. As well as sucking up a large amount of cash in a single transaction, numerous markets are running so hot that it's plausible for properties to be bought and re-sold for a profit. It has also been relatively easy to disguise the true beneficial owner of property in New Zealand, at least until recently. Still have more money to launder? Put in a pool or a new deck, pay the builder in cash and reap the rewards later by adding thousands to the property's selling price.

The overseas shell company

Set up a shell company in an overseas (and poorly regulated) jurisdiction and have a stooge wire funds to it, in small-enough amounts to avoid undue suspicion. Give the company a serious name, a half-decent website full of attractive stock photos and a vaguely worded description of the sectors it operates in. Charge that company for your expensive consultancy services and invoice it accordingly. Collect your income — pay tax on it, if you want to avoid another reason for authorities to look into your affairs. Rinse and repeat.

Gold

As anti-money laundering regimes become widespread, one of the world's oldest luxury commodities is back in vogue. Commonly bought for cash, gold's anonymity makes it difficult to track, adding to the metal's attraction for money launderers. Given that gold carries the same value worldwide, it can also be used to settle debts with other criminals, and is seen as relatively easy to smuggle across borders.