Countrywide Estate Agents has been fined £215,000 for failing to adhere to money laundering regulations.
Online estate agent Teplio, which was fined £68,959, was among four other estate agencies that were also penalised in the latest list published by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
The results prompted HMRC to take a sustained in-depth look at the estate agency sector. Last week, HMRC made 50 inspections as part of a week-long crackdown on money laundering in the property industry.
HMRC said it would begin taking action against those businesses which were found to be failing to comply with the anti-money laundering rules during the inspections.
The agency would not confirm how many businesses had been found in breach of the rules during the inspections.
It supervises more than 11,000 residential and commercial estate agents across the UK. Its regulations are designed to guard against criminals who use property sales to launder cash or finance terrorism.
Countrywide and Tepilo
HMRC said Countrywide’s breaches were for failing to ensure policies, controls and procedures at group level; and for failures in conducting due diligence; timing of verification and proper record keeping.
Tepilo’s failures took place before the firm went into administration in December 2018 and the company now owning the Tepilo brand name was not involved in the breaches.
It was fined for failures in carrying out risk assessments; having the correct policies, controls and procedures and customer due diligence.
Both Countrywide and Tepilo have been approached for comment.
The three other estate agents punished for activity between 26 June and 31 October 2018 were: Settled which was fined £3,245; Sheridans Ltd of Bury St Edmonds which was fined £3,553; and Vail Williams LLP of Reading which was fined £3,461.54.
Last week, HMRC visited 35 estate agents in London, five in Leicester, four in South Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, three in Greater Manchester, and one each in Watford, Wakefield and Wolverhampton.
Legal and moral obligation
Economic secretary to the Treasury John Glen said the vast majority of estate agents played by the rules and helped authorities to crack down on dirty money, but he had zero tolerance for firms prepared to turn a blind eye.
“Money laundering regulation exists to help protect honest business, so anyone who flaunts the law should know that swift action will be taken,” he said.
Minister for national security and economic crime Ben Wallace added that estate agents were a crucial line of defence against criminals.
“That’s why they’re under a legal – and moral – obligation to file a report when they spot something amiss,” he said.
“It’s wrong to think of money laundering as a victimless crime.
“Those with dirty cash to clean don’t just sit on it – they reinvest it in serious organised crime, from drug importation to child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and even terrorism.”
HMRC Fraud Investigation Service director Simon York concluded: “Estate agents need to understand that criminals prey on weaknesses, so it’s vital they take all steps to protect themselves.
“The money laundering regulations are key to that, but there’s still a minority of agents who ignore their legal obligations.
“These inspections are a wake-up call that if you continue to trade illegally we will come knocking.”