Detecting Risk Indicators (red flags) in Financial Institutions

Banks and financial institutions stand at the forefront of the battle against money laundering and terrorist financing (ML/TF) risks, facing significant challenges in safeguarding the integrity of the financial system.

While trying to achieve their business objectives, these institutions are exposed to significant number of money laundering and terrorist financing (ML/TF) risks because they are:

  • handling substantial volumes of funds,
  • operating within complex financial systems,
  • facilitating international transactions,
  • serving diverse customer bases, including high-risk customers.

To comply with regulatory obligations and prevent illicit activities, financial institutions must identify risk indicators that may suggest a customer’s involvement in illegal activities.


What is a red flag

A red flag is a transaction or activity that is either:

  • outside the economic profile of the customer
  • inconsistent with the known business activities of the customer.

Given the high number and volume of transactions processed and the exposure to high-risk customers, financial institutions encounter numerous red flags on a daily basis.


Red flags faced by financial institutions

To effectively address red flags, financial institutions employ robust transaction monitoring solutions. These systems enable the detection and prevention of financial crimes, ensuring compliance with anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing (AML/CFT) regulations.

Red flags for specific industries are often outlined in guidance documents issued by supervisory authorities. Here are some of the key common red flags for financial institutions:


1. Unusual Transaction Patterns:

Transactions that deviate from a customer’s normal behavior. A financial institution must have a complete economic profile of the customer to be able to identify transactions or activity that are outside the normal pattern of the account.

Examples: sudden large cash deposits or withdrawals, frequent and unexplained transfers between accounts.


2. High-Risk Customers:

Customers with characteristics that pose elevated money laundering or terrorist financing risks. These customers should receive enhanced scrutiny.

Examples: Politically exposed persons (PEPs), individuals with criminal backgrounds, or customers from high-risk jurisdictions.


3. Structuring or Smurfing:

The deliberate splitting of transactions into smaller amounts to avoid reporting thresholds or attracting attention.

Example: Multiple deposits or withdrawals below the reporting threshold within a short period.


4. Use of Shell Companies:

A shell company refers to a business entity that exists on paper but lacks substantial operations, assets, or employees. It is often used as a vehicle for illicit activities, including money laundering and tax evasion.

Examples: Use of companies with no real business purpose, insufficient substance, or located in jurisdictions known for lax regulations.


5. Lack of Economic Justification:

Engaging in transactions or financial activities lacking a clear legitimate purpose or economic rationale is often a red flag.

Examples: Loans or investments without reasonable justification, unjustified incoming funds.


6. Unexplained Source of Wealth or Income:

Customers with unexplained wealth, income that is inconsistent with their known financial activities, or unclear sources of funds raise suspicions. It is essential to verify the legitimacy of their financial resources.

Examples: Customer with modest income suddenly deposits a large sum of money into his/her account, individual with no known employment deposits significant amounts of cash.


7. Rapid Movement of Funds:

Large and frequent transfers of money within a short period may trigger the need for further investigation of the transaction. This red flag is particularly significant when it involves transactions to or from high-risk jurisdictions or countries with weak anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing (AML/CTF) controls.

Examples: Multiple large transfers from one account to various offshore accounts in a matter of hours or days


8. Use of Anonymous or Non-Face-to-Face Transactions:

Customers who primarily engage in transactions using anonymous payment methods, online platforms, or non-face-to-face interactions may present higher ML/TF risks due to the potential difficulty in identifying their true identities or verifying the legitimacy of their activities.

Examples: customers engaging in peer-to-peer crypto transfers to avoid disclosing personal information, customers avoiding physical interaction or face-to-face verification when requested.


It is crucial for each organization to define and tailor their own set of red flags that align with their specific business activities, customer profiles, and risk appetite.


By doing so, financial institutions can enhance their ability to detect and prevent illicit activities effectively, ensuring compliance with regulatory requirements and safeguarding their reputation and financial integrity.

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