Making Crime Pay: Aidan Larkin Speaks To The Style Edit

In 2019 more than £200million of the proceeds of crime were collected from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

From these funds more than £36million was paid in compensation to victims from the proceeds of confiscation with the rest going between the Home Office, law enforcement and community schemes*.

While this figure may seem impressive Belfast man Aidan Larkin believes it could, and should be higher, and is on a mission to make crime pay, by maximising returns in asset recovery cases and raising awareness of the subject itself by challenging and dispelling common public perception on the matter, particularly surrounding Proceeds of Crime auctions. 

He talks exclusively to The Style Edit about how, when it comes to justice, recovery of the proceeds of crime is just as important as prison sentences and why ensuring as much of these funds as possible go straight back into the local communities is a cause close to his heart.

Aidan Larkin

Can you describe what it is that you do?

For the last 16 years everything in my life has been to do with seizing assets.
I was previously the asset recovery director with Wilsons Auctions and before that I was a criminal investigator and worked in Revenue and Customs for over ten years. A few months ago I set up my own consultancy company, Asset Reality to help governments around the world raise more funds from the sale of seized assets.

Part of my job is to deal with criminal assets, be it seized bitcoin, Bentleys or Birkin bags – the ill-gotten gains that are seized from criminals around the world. 

Would it be fair to say there’s a big misunderstanding around seized assets and the resulting Proceeds of Crime Auctions?

Absolutely. If I mention to someone about going to a Proceeds of Crime Auction to buy a Louis Vuitton bag for example, the majority of people often raise an eyebrow and usually have an unfounded stereotypical view of these types of auctions. They don’t realise they’d actually be helping a good cause.

The assets aren’t tainted, it was the method of purchase that is tainted and the reason people should get behind these auctions is for the benefit they give to the communities. The proceeds go directly back to either the victims or the local community which is then used either to fund more law enforcement, for mental health initiatives, for drug rehabilitation centres or other social enterprise.

When an auction company such as Wilsons Auctions receive mens’ Louboutin trainers to sell for example (retailing at £1500 each), the people they have been seized from often have a substantial shoe collection, most of which are brand new and have never been worn. All the items are verified and authenticated meaning it’s a safe purchase of any interested bidders.

At Wilson’s we were involved in the television shows Ill Gotten Gains (BBC) and Police, Camera, Auction (ITV) and both highlighted how the funds raised at these auctions were essential to the survival of many community projects and other good causes.

So the money raised from these auctions goes to a good cause?

Yes, a lot of people don’t realise that the money raised from seized assets goes into ‘a pot’, meaning it funds further law enforcement and goes back into community initiatives and compensates victims.

A particular proceeds of crime auction which stands out involved ITV bringing a family across who had been defrauded by the Taylor brothers. These men were convicted of stealing seventeen million pounds from people and spending it on their luxury lifestyle which included boats, jets, Patek Philippe watches and all the other usual trappings. Not only were they sentenced to six years in prison, they also had all of their assets seized. Wilsons Auctions were instructed to sell these assets and as an auctioneer, I suddenly felt a lot more pressure than usual when I was told by ITV that the lady in the front row was the victim whose pension had been defrauded. Whatever the watches sold for at auction she would get back, and for me that just brought the real human side of it home and reinforced the importance of our role and responsibility as the auction company entrusted to deal with these assets.

Gold bars worth £2m. Credit: Wilsons Auctions

“The proceeds go directly back to either the victims or the local community which is then used either to fund more law enforcement, for mental health initiatives, for drug rehabilitation centres or other social enterprise.”

(Wrongly) there seems to be a stigma around attending these auctions?

The auctions are very well attended but I don’t think people realise why supporting them is so helpful for society. At present, buying luxury goods at these auctions seems to be a best keep secret for some buyers. However, we have a moral duty to the victims to spread the word far and wide and encourage this type of purchasing.

I lecture on the topic of maximising returns in asset recovery cases and as such, we need the public’s support to do this. These auctions feature everything from super cars to designer items but there can be a misconception that people can always purchase these cheaply at auction. However, the objective is always to get back as much money as possible. For example, If you or I had been ripped off and we knew that the fraudster had consequently bought a Rolex, we wouldn’t be satisfied knowing that item was not being sold properly. For me, it was always about trying to strike a balance between getting as much money as possible for the asset whilst creating an enjoying bidding atmosphere where people may get the odd bargain. The more people who attend and support these auctions the more money we stand to raise for the victims and communities of crime.

How is it decided where the money goes?

It’s on a case-by-case basis. In Northern Ireland the PSNI can claim back a percentage for every penny that they raise in proceeds of crime funding, which goes towards their budget. If the judge in a particular case decides there was no single, identifiable victim (say with a drug trafficking case) they can award the full proceeds to charity and the police can nominate a charity of their choice. If it’s been a very clear fraud scheme then it may be awarded as compensation for example.

You’re heavily invested in the social aspect of it, why is that?

I come from Ardoyne in North Belfast and when I was growing up we didn’t have heavily funded youth clubs and community initiatives. A tragically large proportion of the guys I was in school with either committed suicide or ended up on the wrong side of the law. I got lucky with the opportunities I was given which included various community funded projects. When I read that one of the contributing factors for social deprivation is lack of funding, I find it frustrating that the public aren’t supporting the auctions that put the money back in the pot. Proceeds of crime funding means putting it back into the areas that have been targeted 

Seized Lamborghini sold for £250,000 at auction. Credit: Wilsons Auctions

My aim is for there to be a greater focus and awareness of the importance of Asset Recovery – it’s not just about the jail sentence criminals receive. Also for governments and individual forces to be held to account for their performance with regard to proceeds of crime assets. It’s the lifeblood of community projects and good causes and we must do more to make it more effective. 

Why did you decide to set up your own business?

I was doing more talks at social entrepreneurial events and talking about the economy, etc. 

I was offered the opportunity to work alongside global regulators on asset management issues but due to my role as a director of an auction company, I felt it would have been a conflict of interest. Therefore, I made the decision to take the leap and round up like-minded individuals to promote best practice asset recovery and raise awareness of these proceeds of crime auctions and the vital role they play in funding society.

I’m on a mission to raise the profile of asset recovery so I set up ‘Asset Reality’ with a network of international experts. We provide training and consultancy services for governments, we help companies who sell the assets and we also assist the law enforcement agencies & insolvency practitioners who deal with complex assets. We’re like a broker in the middle to ensure the best result is achieved.

I covered 200 flights last year and have had the privilege of working all around the world. The UK has quite a unique model by working with the private sector to manage the seized assets so other countries are keen to know more about it. During my time at Wilsons Auctions, we were the first company in the world to auction seized bitcoins and other crypto assets on a governments behalf. That’s a milestone the team and I were very proud of. Not bad for an eighty year old auction company from Belfast!

Seized assets with a value of £300,000. Credit: Wilsons Auctions

How would you like to see your business progress?

My main goal with Asset Reality is for these important assets to be sold in the best possible way  around the world, in line with globally recognised best practice. Some jurisdictions, like the UK, are fortunate to have their local police forces mostly in contract with an auction services provider like Wilsons Auctions (which is now the largest independent auction house in the UK and Ireland and expert in managing proceeds of crime assets). In that instance. the accountability and transparency is there but many countries around the world struggle navigating the complex world of managing seized assets. Even in the UK, whilst many things are done well with regards to realising seized assets, it often takes years for cases to get through court to allow auction companies to sell the assets and significant amounts of value is lost through avoidable depreciation.

Furthermore, no agency is going to be sitting flush with funds over the next nine to twelve months, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and inevitable economic impact. Charities and community initiatives will also be struggling for funding. It keeps me awake at night when I think of the millions of pounds slipping through the net around the UK and worldwide, because of a lack of urgency in dealing with these assets at the earliest opportunity.

My aim is for there to be a greater focus and awareness of the importance of Asset Recovery – it’s not just about the jail sentence criminals receive. Also for governments and individual forces to be held to account for their performance with regard to proceeds of crime assets. It’s the lifeblood of community projects and good causes and we must do more to make it more effective.

Public support for Proceeds of Crime auctions, isn’t the answer to all of the problems, but it’s a great start that can be implemented right away.

Recovered Philip Patek watch auctioned for £70,000. Credit: Wilson's Auctions

*Home Office Asset Recovery Statistical Bulletin 2019

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