Canada’s doors are ‘wide open’ for criminals to launder money in real estate: report

Click to play video: 'CREA attempts to deal with realtors not following anti-money laundering laws' CREA attempts to deal with realtors not following anti-money laundering laws
Fri, Mar 18: There's new evidence possibly hundreds of Vancouver-area real estate firms aren't adhering to anti-money laundering laws. Ted Chernecki reports – Mar 18, 2016

Give us your criminal, your corrupt, your anonymous masses.

It’s a message that Canada is sending to the world with its “doors wide open” approach to money laundering in real estate, says a new report by Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based organization that works to stop corruption around the world.

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The report looked at anti-money laundering practices in four countries — Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

It evaluated these countries by taking 10 areas where “legal loopholes or weak implementation/enforcement enable the corrupt and other criminals to launder money through the real estate sector.”

Canada has deficiencies in four of those areas — fewer than Australia (10 out of 10) and the U.S. (nine out of 10), but more than in the U.K. (one out of 10).

READ MORE: B.C. foreign buyers tax really did yank down Vancouver home prices: BMO

One of the biggest reasons why it’s easy for illicit money to enter Canadian real estate is that it’s not difficult to hide the identities of people who buy homes in the first place.

Canadian law does not require non-financial professionals doing real estate deals to “identify beneficial owners when conducting due diligence on customers.”

Say a real estate agent is closing a deal on a property. The agent may be working with a customer on behalf of what’s known as a “beneficial owner.”

A real estate sold sign is shown outside a house in Vancouver, Tuesday, Jan.3, 2017. Home sales in Metro Vancouver last month dropped by almost 40 per cent compared with January 2016 with the sale of detached houses falling hardest.
A real estate sold sign is shown outside a house in Vancouver, Tuesday, Jan.3, 2017. Home sales in Metro Vancouver last month dropped by almost 40 per cent compared with January 2016 with the sale of detached houses falling hardest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The beneficial owner is someone who receives the benefits of ownership, even if someone else’s name is on the title.

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Agents, lawyers, notaries or accountants don’t have to identify a beneficial owner as part of a due diligence process; this is also true in the U.S. and Australia.

There are also some key omissions when it comes to who’s required to carry out due diligence in the first place.

READ MORE: Homes under $1 million in Vancouver are virtually extinct

In Canada, you have to do due diligence or submit suspicious or large cash transaction reports if you’re  a real estate agent, a broker, a developer or an accountant.

You don’t have to do that if you’re a lawyer, a law firm or a notary from Quebec.

“Given their roles in real estate closings, this is a major loophole,” the report said.

Lawyers used to have to do this under the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act (PCMLTFA).

But that requirement was lifted after the Supreme Court of Canada decided that it would “interfere with the lawyer’s duty to keep client information confidential,” the report said.

READ MORE: Vancouver’s real estate market will keep falling: BCREA

The rules around foreign companies also provide an opportunity for funds to enter Canada without many checks.

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In Canada, foreign companies can buy property without providing any information about their real owners or their corporate structure.

The only info that’s recorded in a registry is the title holder — and even that can just be a trust or a shell company.

Condos and apartment buildings are seen in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday February 2, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Stronger anti-money laundering rules could be particularly useful in a place like Greater Vancouver, where governments can’t identify the owners of almost half of the region’s 100 most valuable homes, according to a previous TI report.

The city has also been the focus of efforts by the Chinese government to recover the proceeds of corruption, a report by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) said last year.

“There are cases of Chinese officials laundering the proceeds of crime through the real estate sector,” the FATF report said.

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“The Chinese government has listed Canada as a country that it wishes to target for recovering the proceeds of Chinese corruption. Canada may be particularly vulnerable to such laundering, as there is no extradition treaty with China.”

Transparency International offered a number of recommendations to strengthen rules around money-laundering in real estate.

They include requiring “all reporting entities involved in real estate transactions” to carry out due diligence on their customers.

READ MORE: These Vancouver homeowners made over $1M last year by doing nothing

“These would include real estate agents and other relevant individuals or entities, such as lawyers and lawforms, accounts, notaries, mortgage lenders and other corporate service providers who engage in the buying and selling of real estate,” the report said.

Governments should also make rules that require real estate agents or others involved in home transactions to identify and keep records on beneficial owners, it said.

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