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A human touch in detecting money laundering

Niké Messelaar - Senior Anti Money Laundering Analyst

Bags full of cash at a local bank branch. Criminal gangs in the news. A suspicious transaction abroad. An estimated 16 billion euros of criminal money flows through Dutch society every year. And the Signals team receives dozens of remarkable stories every day. Senior Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Analyst Niké Messelaar and her team investigate these. Niké: "I find exciting cases quite intriguing."

Red flags at the gate

As an AML Analyst, Nike works to combat financial crime, a key priority within Rabobank. “Criminals try to bring illegally obtained money into the financial system. Rabobank combats this in many ways.” Banks are gatekeepers, Niké explains: “We monitor transactions, look for patterns and detect money laundering. On one hand, we do this automatically, by using all kinds of sophisticated systems that generate alerts. And on the other hand, manually by colleagues passing on signals to our team. The latter, that is what I am working on.”

Niké Messelaar at the computer

“We call these signals Red Flags. If something feels out of place, we look into it. That can be anything. A report from a local branch to an item in the newspaper. Just imagine that someone puts two bags full of two hundred euro notes on a counter and says: I want to deposit this. Of course, this sets off alarm bells. Where did that money come from? Signals like these we investigate.”

Turnover without customers?

“I often explain my work using a simple example: the empty cinema hall. Suppose you have a cinema where nobody ever goes. But: it remains open. That is unusual. How is that possible without visitors? When I get a signal like that, I first look at the turnover. If it is very high, that is of course suspicious. It seems as if the cinema sells out every night, while in reality, they are empty. Where does the money come from? There is a good chance that this income has a different, perhaps illegal, origin. By unraveling the money flows, I investigate the matter. I share my findings in a report with my colleagues from Customer Due Diligence (CDD). They then take the matter further.”

It is like Cluedo, but with bank accounts.
Niké Messelaar

Niké has been doing this work for over three years now, of which one and a half at Rabobank. “An eternity!”, she laughs, “this field is still so very new.” In January 2021, Niké became a senior analyst. “Team Signals mainly looks at transaction traffic. The example of the cinema is, of course, very simple. The cases I am working on now are much more extensive. They involve complex matters, such as large customers with multiple entities at home and abroad. Or cases with complicated money flows, to conceal the origin of the money. A lot of transactions are involved. And a lot of research!”

Detective work in practice

“Because my work is confidential, it is difficult to give real examples. But what recurs every time is puzzle solving. Analyzing, deconstructing, unravelzing. It is like Cluedo with bank accounts. The difference is that we do not yet know for sure whether a crime has been committed. You find out by diving into a case and getting to the bottom of it.”

In 2018, Niké graduated. Not as a money-laundering analyst, but as a forensic investigator. “After my studies, I discovered: to combat crime, you don’t have to work for the police. I get a lot of satisfaction from completing an investigation when I know for sure that something is not right.” The time it takes to complete a case is often shorter than police work, Niké explains. “A criminal investigation can take weeks or even months to complete. The fast pace at the bank appeals to me. I can often complete several investigations in one day.”

Seeing through the cover-up

As a senior Niké also coaches other colleagues. “You can only master this work by doing it and learning from your colleagues. There is no specific study for it; my colleagues come from very diverse backgrounds, from an historian to a market researcher. As a junior, your first work is on simple cases, such as a private individual who has deposited a large sum of money in cash. You learn to write reports, to substantiate your analyses. You have to develop a kind of radar: when is something suspicious? What is wrong and what is not? I help with that.”

“We follow the laws and regulations from the government, but there is also a grey area. With the analysts, we have good discussions about this. How do you interpret the situation, which perspective do you have? People always also have their standards. That is why cooperation is so important. Two pairs of eyes are better than one.”

Niké Messelaar on her road bike

Blowing off steam to stay sharp

Do you ever have concerns that you might have come to the wrong conclusions? “Not really. Sometimes I have doubts, but I have good colleagues to consult. If I get stuck in an investigation, I often go out for a walk. Just to clear my head. We encourage this in our department. If you need to go for a walk, go for it.”

I exercise to blow off steam. It clears my mind, so I can continue my investigation refreshed.
Niké Messelaar

“The research is often so captivating, the pitfall is that it keeps you busy outside of work. That does not help; taking distance is necessary to see things clearly. When I first started, I sometimes woke up at three o’clock in the morning and suddenly knew: this is it! I prefer that Eureka moment to come to me at eleven in the morning. That’s why I do a lot of sports. Cycling, handball, football. This way I can blow off steam and clear my head. The next day I can continue my research, refreshed.

A human touch

“Criminals are constantly coming up with new tricks to outwit us. That is why we must continue to grow. You can see that the bank takes our work seriously. We are investing in software, in good colleagues and training programs, such as the Know Your Customer (KYC) Academy. In this academy, you learn how to understand our clients even better, both in theory and practice. Because complex issues need to be assessed by people. Sometimes the difference between right and wrong is subtle. To do this work, you need a well-functioning moral compass. Ultimately, it is about making society better. That’s why we do it.”