Forty diplomatic missions in London have been asked by HSBC Bank to close their accounts amid claims that some of them are of a suspicious nature.
The bank is reeling from a record $1.9 billion settlement with the US government last month for allowing South American cartels that push large quantities of narcotics to the U.S, to use the bank to launder billions of dollars.
This topped the $780 million fine the US government slapped on Swiss bank UBS AG in 2009 for providing banking facilities to American citizens who then avoided paying US taxes.
After the settlement, HSBC acknowledged that it had not been fully compliant with anti-money laundering procedures and has now agreed to link bonuses paid to executives to meeting compliance standards, ensure better internal information sharing and has appointed a compliance monitor.
The Sierra Leone High Commission is one diplomatic mission that received a letter from HSBC asking it to close its account with the bank after demanding that a mortgage balance of £194,000 be paid off first. The Sierra Leone government paid the money but the High Commission is now looking for a new bank.
In June, Alastair Loudon, Deputy Regional Director at HSBC, explained in a letter to the High Commission: “We have recently conducted a strategic assessment of our Embassy business, and have concluded that this should not be a focus area for the Bank.
“We now ask that you make alternative arrangements for all products and services that we currently provide to your Embassy. In accordance with our Terms and Conditions, we will be closing your accounts on 13th August 2013 which is 60 calendar days from the date of this letter.”
Other diplomatic missions or consulates that have been told by HSBC to close their accounts include Benin, The Vatican and Papua New Guinea.
Lawrence Landau, Honorary Consul of Benin, told The Mail on Sunday that his mission had been having trouble finding a new bank. “We have been trying everyone but all the UK banks are clamming up.”
The British Foreign Office declined to confirm the number of missions that have been told to find a new bank. A spokeswoman explained that there was little the British government could do to aid the stricken missions.
So, on what grounds are customers asked to close their accounts by banks? A banking expert explained: “A bank might close an account for a number of reasons such as if you are in overdraft; if there is a small amount in the account; if there is no activity over a long period of time; if money laundering is suspected; if any illegal activity is suspected such as terrorist financing.”
The US government has been on the case of big banks that have been wittingly or unwittingly laundering drugs money or conducting transactions for customers in countries such as Burma, Cuba, Iran, Libya and Sudan that are under US sanctions.