US set to unveil crackdown on real estate money laundering

US set to unveil crackdown on real estate money laundering

NEW YORK--The U.S. Treasury Department will soon propose a rule that would effectively end anonymous luxury-home purchases, closing a loophole that the agency says allows corrupt oligarchs, terrorists and other criminals to hide ill-gotten gains.

The long-awaited rule is expected to require that real estate professionals such as title insurers report the identities of the beneficial owners of companies buying real estate in cash to the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). FinCEN is slated to propose the rule sometime this month, according to its regulatory agenda, though the timeline could slip, said two people briefed on the developments. Anti-corruption advocates and lawmakers have been pushing for the rule, which will replace the current patchwork reporting system. Criminals have for decades anonymously hidden ill-gotten gains in real estate, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in March, adding that as much as $2.3 billion was laundered through U.S. real estate between 2015 and 2020. "That's why FinCEN is taking this important step to put something officially on the books that would root out money laundering through the sector once and for all," said Erica Hanichak, government affairs director of advocacy group the FACT Coalition.

Some advocates say FinCEN, which declined to comment on the timing of the proposal, has moved too slowly. Officials first said in 2021 that they planned to implement the rule. FinCEN has been struggling to complete a related rule that would unmask shell company owners. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pressed FinCEN to tighten up that proposal, according to an April public letter. That debate has slowed down FinCEN's work on the real estate reporting rule, one of the sources said. The American Land Title Association, which represents title insurers, says it welcomes the new rule but that FinCEN should delay it until the shell company rule is completed. The proposed rule will be open to public and industry feedback.

While banks have long been required to understand the source of customer funds and report suspicious transactions, no such rules exist nationwide for the real estate industry. Instead, FinCEN has operated real estate purchase disclosure rules, known as geographic targeting orders (GTOs), in just a handful of cities including New York, Miami and Los Angeles. The new rule is expected to effectively expand GTOs nationwide. FinCEN implemented GTOs in 2016 after the New York Times revealed that nearly half of luxury real estate was bought by anonymous shell companies.

But the orders are easy to skirt by simply buying property outside the targeted areas, said Jodi Vittori, an expert on illicit finance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Transparency advocates pushing for a nationwide rule point to the example of Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman who, according to prosecutors, used an anonymous shell company to channel illicit profit from a fraud scheme into the $26 million purchase of a 50,000-square-foot New Jersey mansion in December 2021. Had Guo brought property across the Hudson River in Manhattan, it would have been subject to a GTO and likely flagged immediately to law enforcement.

The Daily Herald

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