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Real estate and laundered money — If it’s so prevalent, why aren’t we catching it?

Pete McMartin: Real estate and laundered money — If it’s so prevalent, why aren’t we catching it?
 

Laundered offshore money is blamed by some for Metro Vancouver’s high real estate prices. But until the federal agency that investigates such things shares its findings, we won’t know whether there’s any truth to it. Fotolia.

If Metro Vancouver’s real estate market is awash in laundered offshore money, then where is the evidence of that?

Where are the arrests and court cases attesting to its existence? Where are the press releases of successfully prosecuted cases? Where are government vows to crack down on it, or even recognize it as a problem?

In other countries, the problem of foreign laundered money in real estate has been more visible. In New York, the influx of plundered money from Russia, China and despotic Third World countries buying up luxury properties has been well-documented, most notably in The New York Times.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron vowed this week to act against corrupt foreigners buying up high-end properties there through shell companies, a practice, he suggested, that was driving real estate prices. About $245 billion-worth of real estate in England and Wales is registered offshore now, most often to shell companies with addresses in the British Virgin Islands or Jersey. The difference between Britain and Canada is that in Britain, those real estate figures are readily available. Here, they aren’t.

This is not to say laundered and plundered money has not been flooding into the Canadian real estate market, especially here in Metro Vancouver.

It may well be.

But catching it is another matter.

In Canada, the federal government’s investigative arm of laundered money is Fintrac — the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre. Under its system, the responsibility to report suspicious transactions or those transactions over $10,000 rests with real estate agents and their brokerages.

Paperwork must be filed, and the identification of the individual or company involved in the transaction must be obtained. Penalties for not doing so are stiff, with fines up to $2 million and/or five years in prison.

Yet in Fintrac’s 2014 annual report, it stated there was “a lower level of compliance” for reporting in the real estate industry.

Penalties for non-compliance, however, have been few — only seven minor fines across all of Canada — and of the half-dozen real estate agents I interviewed here, including Scott Russell, president of the B.C. Real Estate Association, all were surprised at Fintrac’s portrayal of the industry’s compliance. All said they were careful to comply, despite the fact they felt it did little good in identifying laundered money. Several of them said they made out Fintrac reports on every transaction they made, despite the amount.

Speaking of his own firm’s procedures, Russell said:

“We will not pay out on a completed deal without a Fintrac form on every single transaction, and I can tell you most brokerages are like that. This office hasn’t accepted cash since before 2000, and the reason why is that it’s more of a security thing for us because we had (office staff) taking bags of money to the bank.

“And most offices don’t (take cash). The (Fintrac) penalties are huge, and nobody wants to be offside.”

The tales of deals being done with suitcases full of cash, he said, were just that — tales. Most often, realtors never see cash, but bank drafts or registered cheques, and only then for down payment sums that are often below Fintrac’s $10,000 cut-off figure for reporting.

The big closing sums, all the realtors said, were handled by lawyers and notary publics. Due to a Supreme Court decision earlier this year, however, lawyers were ruled exempt from Fintrac reporting on the grounds it violated solicitor-client privilege.

Additionally, Fintrac does not monitor leases and rental deals.

Randall McCauley, vice-president of government and public relations for the Canadian Real Estate Association, has been negotiating with the federal government for the last seven years on how the real estate industry could best report to Fintrac. He was loathe, he said, to comment on Fintrac’s effectiveness. Because of the confidential and sensitive nature of its investigations, he said, it may not be able to divulge its methods. But he did say that if a criminal was intent on avoiding Fintrac, there were ways to do it.

“It seems to me,” McCauley said, “that people with that level of money often deal with professionals like lawyers and banks and accountants, and some of them have to report and some of them don’t. Big goes to big in my experience. If they were criminal and they knew what they were doing, I don’t know that they’d easily run to a realtor.

“So it’s an imperfect regime ... If they are sophisticated criminals, and they do want to launder money through real estate in big markets, there are huge gaps where they can do that without ever talking to a realtor.”

Is there laundered money in Metro Vancouver’s real estate?

Possibly. Likely.

Has Fintrac been successful in identifying it?

We don’t know. Fintrac won’t say, at least publicly.

But one realtor I talked to, who had doubts about Fintrac’s effectiveness, said he would be more inclined to embrace the process if the agency could show realtors that their compliance was helping to catch the bad guys.

“Show us the results,” he said.

It seems like a reasonable request.

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