FOREIGN gangsters have bought a mainstream Scottish company as a “safe house” for their dirty money, according to a senior police financial investigator.

Law enforcement sources have long-warned that indigenous organised criminals are breaking out of traditional strongholds - such as the taxi or security industries - to seize control of chunks of Scotland’s economy.

Now, for the first time, they are suggesting overseas crime groups are doing so too, posing a serious threat to legitimate traders and their customers.

Kenneth Murray, head of forensic accountancy at Police Scotland, confirmed the purchase of a mainstream Scottish company by a foreign businessman with known gangland affiliations.

But he declined to give any details of the buyer or the company bought.

He stressed that Scottish underworld figures, who have traditionally protected their own turf from overseas gangsters, were also actively purchasing distressed, real-world businesses to expand their grip well beyond their heartlands in the poorest communities of the Central Belt.

In an exclusive interview with our sister title The Herald, Mr Murray effectively sounded a wake-up call about the threat of organised crime infiltration into Scotland’s legitimate economy. 

The investigator said: “We are lucky in Scotland. We have strong institutions and professions. We have lots of natural strengths. But they will be eroded at a pace that will scare us if we are not awake to this threat.”

Mr Murray said there were no longer any “untouchables” in Scotland but warned that there was a danger of a long-term “drag” on the nation’s economy if gangster infiltration was not stopped.

The investigator said the profits of Scotland’s multi-billion drugs industry were not increasingly being laundered at home, in the new corporate equivalent of traditional cash “safe houses”. 

The old safe houses were properties where bulk cash could be stored before being laundered abroad.

Mr Murray explained: “Companies are now being acquired  to take the place of safe houses. 

“There is always a reason for cash to be in companies. The companies themselves may have an entirely legitimate business but it provides an effective shelter for these funds which are then drawn in through a network of associated companies. This can then provide a story of value or a source of income for organised crime players.

“You could always tell the sort of companies associated with organised  crime. Taxi, security and logistics firms, tanning salon  and nail bars.

“We are beginning to move away from that now. What we are seeing is that for the serious players in organised crime and looking to acquire business with a good track record, training and good reputation in marketplace.

“The typical scenario is they identity a company which has all of these characteristics but for whatever reason has run in to cash flow difficulties. 

“In general, the central belt of Scotland has always been resilient to outside influences. Increasingly the senior players in Scottish organised are engaging with international service providers. One of those foreign individuals has himself acquired a business in exactly the way I have described. 

“I think that could be as a result of wishing to de-risk from being directly involved in the physical carriage of drugs.” 

Scotland has increasingly become known overseas as the new Switzerland - with its shell companies offering the same kind of opportunities to hide illicit cash as Swiss bank accounts once did.

Mr Murray, however, is not talking about shell companies, such as Scottish limited partnerships, which tend to bank overseas. He is talking about the purchase by gangsters of real-world business which employ real people and do real business in Scotland.

And he believes the consequences for failing to deal with this criminalisation could be grave. Mr Murray said: “The fundamental penalty for allowing an accumulation of criminal cash in the economy is that it is a drag on the economy. It undermines competitiveness, it discourages legitimate players from entering those markets. If it becomes a growing theme in Scotland, it is bound to affect inward investment. I think it is a serious issue.”