Toronto’s real-estate market risky for money laundering, with $28B in opaque investments: report

Most Canadian provinces failing to prosecute money laundering

It is not just Vancouver’s skyrocketing real-estate market that is being boosted by criminal cash and professional money launderers.

A new report by Transparency International Canada has found Toronto’s much larger market faces massive floods of opaque cash, with $28.4 billion invested in Greater Toronto Area housing since 2008, through corporations.

“Criminals need homes too,” the report says, noting it’s “no surprise” that crooks living in Toronto use their criminal proceeds to buy homes.

Click to play video: 'Making a killing:  Global News investigation into fentanyl trade'
Making a killing: Global News investigation into fentanyl trade

But it is transnational crime syndicates that have the power to really move Canadian real-estate prices in high-risk money-laundering havens like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, a fact that was recognized this week by Finance Canada in a proposal for a new national anti-money-laundering task force.

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And the point is underlined with Transparency International’s new report.

“Property is also an appealing asset class for individuals looking to launder and invest large sums of dirty cash, and there are few countries quite as welcoming as Canada,” the report says.

Not all of the $28 billion in corporate purchases identified in the new report will be nefarious. But a significant portion of the 1.4-million corporate transactions studied are open to abuse, because “the vast majority” of companies involved are privately owned, offering no information about the true buyers behind corporate shells, the report says.

Author Adam Ross completed a study of Vancouver’s high-risk luxury market in December 2016, and found about half of the city’s most expensive homes were owned through non-transparent means.

Ross found that Toronto’s luxury market was much the same.

“Opaque ownership is most prevalent in the luxury segment of the market, with more than half of homes above $7 million owned through companies,” the report says.

Ross also found that 35 per cent of the 51,498 properties acquired through corporate entities between 2008 and 2018, “were cash purchases (i.e. had no mortgages).”

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Corporations are much more likely than individuals to buy homes with no financing, which means they have less scrutiny from financial institutions, and likely are at more risk for parking large sums of dirty cash.

WATCH: Most provinces in Canada fail to secure convictions in money-laundering cases

But financed home purchases in the Toronto area were also at risk for money laundering because $25 billion in residential mortgages over the past 10 years were provided by “unregulated lenders with no anti-money laundering reporting obligations,” according to the report.

And when corporations borrow, they are more likely to borrow for a larger portion of the home’s price, than individuals.

The Toronto real estate money-laundering report says that so-called “high-ratio” loans can be used to finance development projects and “can appear on title in full as being much larger than the purchase price — but could also include borrowing with the intention of washing dirty money through repayment.”

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Large loans from private lenders that are suspect, is a theme covered in a Global News investigation that found over $1 billion in suspected organized crime money laundering in Vancouver luxury real estate in 2016, according to an unreleased police study.

In a scheme believed to be quite prevalent in Vancouver’s residential real-estate market, alleged fentanyl traffickers and casino loan sharks connected to Chinese gangs were shown to be significant real-estate lenders in that city, according to the Global News investigation.

WATCH: How organized crime groups launder suspected drug money in B.C. real estate

Click to play video: 'How organized crime groups launder suspected drug money in B.C. real estate'
How organized crime groups launder suspected drug money in B.C. real estate

It is Canada’s weak regulations and policing of real-estate money laundering that seems to have attracted global criminals with vast sums to wash, the report suggests.

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“Where they do have obligations, real-estate industry players have a dismal record of compliance — something Canada’s regulatory agencies have done little to remedy,” the report says. “And to make matters worse, our enforcement record advertises that laundering dirty money is a low-risk endeavour in Canada. Money laundering cases rarely go to trial, and often collapse when they do. This appears to have contributed to a rise in professional money laundering operations across the country.”

The federal government has proposed improvements to Canada’s beneficial ownership transparency laws in the 2019 budget. But the potential changes do not approach the reforms recommended by Transparency International and taken up already by other jurisdictions, such as the U.K.

The report notes that Canadian lawyers are a significant risk in real estate money laundering, because they do not have to disclose information about money flowing through their trust accounts to Fintrac, Canada’s anti-money-laundering data collector.

“The good news is that opaque ownership and the other conditions that make our real estate markets vulnerable to money laundering can be addressed with relatively straightforward policy reforms,” the report concludes.

Recommendations include:

  • Require beneficial owners of real estate to identify themselves to land title authorities, and make that information available to the public in an open data format. Disclosure of beneficial ownership should be a prerequisite for any property transfer
  • Require all companies and trusts registered or transacting in Canada to identify their beneficial owners, and publish that information in a central publicly available registry
  • Amend the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act and its regulations to include other real-estate-related businesses such as unregulated mortgage lenders, mortgage brokers, land registries, title and mortgage insurers

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