Estate agents have a “moral” obligation to report suspicions about potential money laundering, the Government has said.
Ministers are targeting the sector as part of a new drive to stop criminals using dirty money to buy properties.
They called on estate agents to alert the National Crime Agency when they spot signs such as a client being evasive or contradictory about the source of a large sum of money or using many different bank accounts.
From April 2017 to March 2018, estate agents submitted 710 suspicious activity reports compared with 5,036 from accountants and 2,660 from independent legal professionals, according to figures cited by the Home Office.
Ben Wallace, minister for national security and economic crime, said: “Criminals who seek to use this country as a place to launder money should be in no doubt that they have nowhere to hide.
“Estate agents are a crucial line of defence against them and that’s why they’re under a legal – and moral – obligation to file a report when they spot something amiss.
He said it was 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,” Mr Wallace said.
The “Flag It Up” anti-money laundering campaign is being expanded into the property sector for the first time.
The Government said it is particularly aimed at the high-end real estate sector which is vulnerable to money laundering as luxurious properties in the UK are seen as a “badge of wealth and respectability”.
Estate agents could be prevented from trading or face prosecution if they fail to comply with money laundering regulations.
The sector is supervised under the regime by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
Simon York, director of HMRC’s fraud investigation service, said: “The extension of the Flag It Up campaign to the property industry will help bolster our efforts and sends a clear message from both the Government and the sector that the door is closing on money laundering.”
Mark Hayward, chief executive of NAEA Propertymark, a professional body for estate agents, said: “Both small and large estate agencies are susceptible to criminal activity.
“Houses bought with laundered money often sit empty, taking homes away from the market that could be used for families and having a further negative impact on the wider community.
“By partnering with the campaign, we are pleased to see the Government engaging with the sector to support estate agents in their legal anti-money laundering obligations.”
The precise scale of money laundering in the UK is unknown, but law enforcement experts estimate that it could run to hundreds of billions of pounds a year.