UK ‘Fusion Cell’ Deploys Financial Intelligence Against COVID-19 Crime Wave

By Koos Couvée

Efforts by U.K. officials to ramp up data-sharing with banks and other firms to combat a rise in financial crimes during the novel coronavirus pandemic have yielded valuable lessons, a senior official said Thursday.

In April, Britain’s National Crime Agency formed a group of around 30 organizations, including banks and other financial institutions, insurance companies, investigators, public agencies and the U.K. financial intelligence unit, UKFIU, to tackle fraudsters and other criminals seeking to exploit the public health crisis for financial gain.

Sarah Pritchard, director of the NCA’s National Economic Crime Center, a partnership tasked with coordinating British law enforcement’s overall response to financial crime, told attendees of City and Financial Global’s Financial Crime and AML Virtual Summit on Thursday that the “COVID-19 fusion cell” will inform the NCA’s longer-term ambitions of identifying and halting more illicit funds “in real time”.

The group, which meets remotely every week, is modeled on the U.K’s well-established Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Task Force, or JMLIT, a public-private partnership aimed at tackling high-end illicit finance, but differs in several ways, Pritchard said.

Financial intelligence-sharing has become “more real-time” through the fusion cell than through JMLIT, Pritchard said.

The group, which includes fraud, cybercrime and money-laundering specialists, particularly focuses on sharing knowledge of financial crime patterns and indicators, and receives regular updates from UKFIU on what firms have flagged in suspicious activity reports.

“Criminals don’t operate in silos, so to understand risks … you need to see what the fraudsters are doing and how they are laundering their money afterwards,” she said. “That requires a join up, both within organizations and across sectors.”

The fusion cell has forwarded several cases to law enforcement since launching in April and seen “real value” in sharing risk indicators, Pritchard said. Two financial institutions that participate in the forum have newly subjected almost a thousand customers to “enhanced monitoring” as a result of the cooperation.

In three other cases, the more rapid sharing of financial intelligence enabled institutions to release roughly £300 million of funds they had temporarily frozen over financial-crime concerns.

The process can still prove “slow and laborious,” Pritchard said. “This is not yet real-time info sharing, some of the issues are cultural and they need still be worked through for the future to help us really achieve our ambition of more real-time exchange.”

Those lessons will propel the NECC’s campaign to develop and expand relationships with the private sector, Pritchard said.

The NECC, which launched in October 2018, neither has its own operational funds nor a financial intelligence function independent of its parent agency, the NCA.

Helena Wood, a research fellow with the Royal United Services Institute in London, told ACAMS that the forum “has used the crisis well” to carve a niche within the U.K. law-enforcement landscape.

“It has shown that there is a real role for the NECC as a coordinating bridge between the public and private sector on fraud,” Wood said. “But there still remains this problem that its relationship with policing is not what it should be.”

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Source: United Kingdom , United Kingdom: National Crime Agency
Document Date: November 5, 2020