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AML03 Jul 2024

How to Detect Money Laundering in Banks & Key Preventive Measures

Emmanuel Agwu

In recent years, advancements in technology have led to even more sophisticated methods of money laundering. Criminals now use digital currencies and complex financial transactions to hide their activities. The anonymity and speed of digital transactions provide a significant advantage, making it harder for authorities to detect and track illicit funds. The question of how to detect money laundering in banks remains crucial as financial institutions need to also adopt new technologies to match the evolving fraud techniques used by criminals today.

This article dives deep into how to detect money laundering in banks, discussing why it is important, the common techniques used by criminals today, and the major signs and best practices for money laundering detection by financial institutions today. 

What is Money Laundering?

Money laundering is the process of making illegally-gained money appear legitimate. Criminals use this technique to hide the origin of their funds, allowing them to use the proceeds of illegal activities without detection. The primary objective is to disguise the illegal origins of money, making it look like it was earned through legal means.

Initially, money laundering involved relatively straightforward methods. Criminals would physically transport cash or use small-scale businesses to mix illegal funds with legitimate earnings. These methods were rudimentary but effective for the time, providing a basic level of cover for illicit activities.

As law enforcement and regulatory bodies began to catch on, criminals evolved their techniques. They started using shell companies and offshore accounts to obscure the money trail. These methods made it more challenging for authorities to trace the origin of the funds, adding layers of complexity to the laundering process.

Importance of Detecting and Preventing Money Laundering in Banks

Detecting and preventing money laundering is crucial for several reasons:

a. Legal Obligations: 

Banks are legally required to monitor and report suspicious activities. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in hefty fines and legal action. Compliance with anti-money laundering (AML) laws is essential to avoid severe penalties and maintain operational integrity.

b. Reputational Risks: 

Involvement in a money laundering scandal can severely damage a bank’s reputation. Such incidents erode the trust of customers and investors, which can be challenging to rebuild. A tarnished reputation can lead to significant financial losses and a decline in customer base.

c. Impact on Financial Systems: 

Money laundering can destabilise financial institutions by allowing criminal organisations to infiltrate and manipulate the financial system. This destabilisation can have broader economic implications, affecting the stability and integrity of financial markets. Preventing money laundering helps protect the overall health of the financial system and ensures a level playing field for legitimate businesses.

Common Money Laundering Techniques

Some of the common techniques used by criminals for money laundering include:

i. Smurfing: 

One common method is smurfing, which involves breaking large sums of money into smaller, less conspicuous transactions. By spreading these smaller transactions across various accounts or financial institutions, criminals avoid raising red flags and evade detection by regulatory bodies.

ii. Shell Companies: 

Criminals often create shell companies, which are businesses that exist only on paper. These companies have no real operations but serve as vehicles to move money around, making it difficult to trace the origins of the funds. By routing money through these shell entities, criminals can effectively obscure the source of their illicit gains.

iii. Trade-Based Laundering: 

This technique involves manipulating trade transactions to disguise the origins of money. For example, criminals might over-invoice or under-invoice goods to move money across borders. This method leverages the complexities of international trade to make illegal transactions appear legitimate.

iv. Digital Asset Trading: 

With the rise of digital currencies, money laundering has taken on a new dimension. Cryptocurrencies offer the ability to transfer funds quickly and anonymously, making them an attractive option for laundering money. The decentralised nature of digital currencies makes it challenging for authorities to track and regulate these transactions.

v. Real Estate: 

Another prevalent method involves using illegal funds to purchase real estate. Criminals buy property and then sell it, thereby integrating the illicit money into the legitimate financial system. Real estate transactions provide a cover for large sums of money and offer a way to legitimise illegal earnings.

What are the Signs of Potential Money Laundering Activities?

Some of the suspicious signs that may be indicative of money laundering are:

a. Secretive or Suspicious Behavior by Clients

Clients exhibiting secretive or suspicious behaviour can be a red flag for potential money laundering. One common sign is the reluctance to provide personal or business information. Clients who avoid answering questions or giving details about their transactions should be scrutinised. 

Additionally, customers who justify their transactions with vague or implausible reasons, such as making large deposits without a clear source of income, may warrant further investigation. Another indicator is unusual instructions from clients, like requesting that bank statements not be sent by mail, which may suggest an attempt to avoid detection.

b. Formation of Shell Companies Without Legitimate Purposes

Shell companies often play a significant role in money laundering schemes. These entities typically lack real business operations or significant assets, existing primarily to move money around. They may have complex ownership structures, making it difficult to identify the true owners, and frequently change names or addresses to avoid detection. 

The use of residential addresses or shared business addresses can also be a telltale sign of shell companies involved in illicit activities.

c. Use of Complex Corporate Structures

Money launderers often employ complex corporate structures to obscure the origins of their funds. This can include layering transactions through multiple companies and accounts to make tracing the money trail more challenging. Businesses registered in multiple jurisdictions, especially those known for lax regulatory environments, can also be indicative of money laundering. Additionally, companies sharing directors or officers with other entities without a clear reason might be attempting to hide the true nature of their activities.

d. Unusual Transaction Patterns and Volumes

Unusual transaction patterns and volumes are key indicators of suspicious activity. High-value transactions that do not align with the customer’s profile or typical business operations should be flagged. Similarly, a series of frequent, small transactions just below reporting thresholds, known as structuring, can be used to avoid detection. Transactions in round figures, especially if frequent, may also indicate attempts to launder money.

e. Frequent International Transfers Without Clear Reasons

Frequent international transfers without clear reasons can be a major red flag. Transfers to and from offshore accounts, particularly in countries known for secrecy laws, are often suspicious. Money transfers between accounts that have no apparent relationship or business purpose can also signal money laundering. Additionally, international transfers that do not align with the customer’s stated business activities or personal profile need closer examination.

Detecting these indicators requires a combination of vigilance, robust AML systems, and continuous training for bank staff. By understanding and recognizing these signs, banks can better protect themselves and the financial system from the risks associated with money laundering.

How to Detect Money Laundering in Banks

1. Overview of the Investigation Process in Banks

Banks should employ a structured process to investigate money laundering activities. This process involves several steps to ensure thorough examination:

  • Detection: The bank's systems flag suspicious transactions based on predefined criteria.
  • Review: A compliance officer reviews the flagged transactions to determine if they warrant further investigation.
  • Investigation: If the transaction is deemed suspicious, a detailed investigation begins. This involves collecting and analyzing all relevant information, such as transaction records, customer profiles, and communication logs.
  • Reporting: If the investigation confirms suspicions, the bank files a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) with the relevant authorities.

2. Rule-Based Detection Systems and Their Functionalities

Banks relying heavily on rule-based detection systems will help them identify suspicious activities. These systems use a set of predefined rules to monitor transactions in real-time:

  • Threshold Alerts: Transactions that exceed a certain amount trigger an alert. For example, any deposit over $10,000 might be flagged for review.
  • Pattern Detection: The system can identify patterns that are typical of money laundering, such as multiple small deposits followed by a large withdrawal.
  • Behavioural Analysis: By comparing current transactions to the customer's usual behaviour, the system can detect anomalies that may indicate illegal activities.
  • Geographic Monitoring: Transactions involving high-risk countries or regions are flagged. For instance, transfers to nations known for lax financial regulations receive extra scrutiny.

3. Collaboration with Other Financial Institutions and Regulatory Bodies

Effective money laundering investigations often require collaboration with other entities:

  • Information Sharing: Banks can share information about suspicious activities with other financial institutions. This helps build a more comprehensive picture of the potential money laundering network.
  • Regulatory Bodies: Banks must work closely with regulatory authorities like the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) in the US or the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in the UK. These bodies provide guidelines and support for AML efforts.
  • Joint Investigations: Sometimes, multiple banks and regulatory bodies collaborate on joint investigations. This can involve sharing data, pooling resources, and coordinating actions to dismantle complex money laundering schemes.

4. Importance of Documentation and Auditing in Investigations

Documentation and auditing play crucial roles in ensuring the effectiveness and integrity of money laundering investigations:

  • Detailed Records: Banks must maintain detailed records of all transactions, customer interactions, and investigative actions. This documentation supports the investigation and provides evidence if legal action is necessary.
  • Regular Audits: Periodic audits of the bank's AML processes help identify weaknesses and areas for improvement. Audits can be internal, conducted by the bank's compliance team, or external, performed by independent auditors.
  • Compliance Checks: Continuous monitoring of compliance with AML regulations ensures that the bank's practices remain up-to-date with current laws and standards. This includes regular training for staff and updating detection systems to address emerging threats.

By following these steps and utilizing advanced detection systems, banks can effectively investigate and combat money laundering activities. This not only protects the bank but also helps maintain the integrity of the global financial system.

Best Practices for Banks to Prevent Money Laundering

Banks can adopt the following practices to prevent money laundering operations:

i. Regular Updates to AML Policies and Procedures

Banks must ensure their Anti-Money Laundering (AML) policies and procedures stay current with evolving regulations and emerging threats. Regular updates are essential:

  • Regulatory Changes: Financial regulations change frequently. Banks need to incorporate these updates promptly to remain compliant.
  • Technological Advancements: New KYC and AML technological solutions can both aid and challenge AML efforts. Banks should adapt their policies to leverage advancements like artificial intelligence and blockchain.
  • Criminal Tactics: As criminals develop new methods to launder money, banks must update their procedures to counteract these tactics effectively.

ii. Continuous Training and Education for Bank Staff

Education is critical for an effective AML strategy. Continuous training ensures that all staff members, from tellers to compliance officers, understand their roles:

  • Mandatory Training Programs: Regularly scheduled training sessions help staff recognise and report suspicious activities.
  • Specialised Courses: Advanced training for employees in high-risk areas, such as international transfers and large transactions, ensures specialised knowledge.
  • Scenario-Based Learning: Using real-life scenarios in training helps employees apply their knowledge practically.

iii. Implementation of Robust Customer Due Diligence (CDD) Processes

Customer Due Diligence (CDD) is a vital component of AML efforts. Robust CDD processes involve:

  • Know Your Customer (KYC): Collecting and verifying information about customers during the account opening process. This includes identity verification, understanding the nature of their business, and assessing their risk level.
  • Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD): For high-risk customers, banks should perform more in-depth checks. This might include verifying the source of funds, ongoing monitoring of transactions, and periodic reviews of the customer’s profile.
  • Ongoing Monitoring: Continuously monitor customer transactions against expected behaviour to detect anomalies. Alerts should be generated for any unusual activity.

iv. Periodic Reviews and Audits of AML Systems and Practices

Regular reviews and audits are crucial for maintaining an effective AML program:

  • Internal Audits: Conducted by the bank’s own compliance team, these audits ensure that AML policies are being followed and identify areas for improvement.
  • External Audits: Performed by independent third parties, these audits provide an objective assessment of the bank’s AML efforts.
  • System Testing: Regular testing of AML detection systems ensures they function correctly and efficiently. This includes checking for false positives and negatives, system updates, and integrating new detection methods.


Periodic audits and reviews ensure the effectiveness and integrity of AML systems, helping banks continuously improve their defences against money laundering.

By following these best practices, banks can create a robust framework to prevent money laundering, protect their reputation, and ensure compliance with global financial regulations.

Detecting and Preventing Money Laundering in Banks with Smile ID

Money laundering presents a complex and evolving challenge for banks and financial institutions. By understanding the history, methods, and impact of money laundering, banks can develop robust detection and prevention strategies. Staying informed about the various techniques used by criminals is essential in the ongoing fight to protect the financial system from illicit activities.


Smile ID solutions are designed to provide you with comprehensive AML and KYC coverage in 54+ countries across Africa. Our solutions empower businesses to conduct KYC tailored to their specific needs. The KYC process includes: 

Step 1: Identity Verification

Smile ID offers an array of identity verification solutions to help businesses meet their KYC compliance needs. This includes: 

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Step 2: AML Check

Take extra precautions by running an AML check on the customer against PEP, Sanctions, and watchlists.

Businesses can perform this via our no-code platform or API/ SDK integration. Book a free demo today to learn more.

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