How gangs used Vancouver's real estate market to launder $5bn

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Vancouver skylineImage source, Getty Images

The Canadian city of Vancouver had one of the hottest real estate markets in the world. Is organised crime to blame?

The bustling city on the western coast of Canada was known for its stunning views of the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, its lush and ancient forests and its historic downtown skyscrapers.

No wonder its real-estate market was white hot, with everyone from nature lovers to business leaders keen to have a Western home base close to Asian markets wanting to get in on the action.

But new reports suggest that Vancouver's real estate was also attractive as a Laundromat for some of the world's most notorious criminals.

A panel of experts estimated that C$5.3bn ($4bn, £3bn) was laundered through real estate in the province of British Columbia, with most of it funnelling through Vancouver, its largest and most expensive city.

This represents about 5% of real estate transactions, and the panel estimated these purchases - which were often overvalued - had the effect of raising prices overall by 5%.

In short, organised criminals fanned the flames on Vancouver's already smoking-hot real estate market, making the city even more unaffordable for its residents.

Why Vancouver?

The panel, commissioned by the British Columbia government, believes the province - especially the city of Vancouver - is a hotbed for money laundering in Canada.

Using economic analysis and modelling, the panel estimated that across all industries, about C$46.7bn was laundered across the country in 2018.

About C$7.4bn was laundered in British Columbia, with real-estate taking up the biggest piece of the pie.

To put it in perspective, British Columbia accounts for about 13% of Canada's overall GDP, but about 17% of total laundered funds.

The panel warns that their analysis is likely to skew low.

In a complementary paper, former RCMP deputy commissioner Peter German hypothesised that Canada in general, and Vancouver in particular, became attractive to international organised crime for a number of reasons.

Canada is attractive because the country's justice system has made it difficult to catch money laundering, German believes. It has some of the most lax financial reporting rules in the developed world, and few police and prosecutorial resources devoted to white collar crime.

Even if they are caught, Canada is a rule of law country that believes in due process and rehabilitation. A criminal on trial in Canada will be treated much better than they would in the People's Republic of China, for example.

Vancouver is especially attractive because it is a multicultural city with several ethnic communities, which makes doing international business much easier.

German notes that El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel, mainland Chinese gang the Big Circle Boys, and Iranian gangs with footholds in both Dubai and the Persian diaspora in North America all have deep ties in the city of Vancouver.

Finally, while real-estate prices overall in Canada have remained relatively stable, the real-estate market in Vancouver skyrocketed over the past decade. In mid-2016, prices grew 30% annually.

This led to what German describes as a "gold rush", with many investors scrambling to get into the market, flip properties and make a killing. That meant there was a lot of cash exchanging hands, and a lot of transactions, making it even harder for authorities to spot shady deals and suspicious dealers.

How did they do it?

Catching money-launderers in the act is incredibly difficult, according to a report written by retired lawyer Kevin Comeau and published by a Canadian think tank, the CD Howe Institute.

They often rely on a hodgepodge of lawyers, shell corporations and intermediaries to be the "face" of their illegal transactions.

In the real estate industry, this means criminal organisations may invest in a development property, paying construction bills in cash, or even loan themselves a mortgage through a shell corporation.

Others buy rental properties, especially low-income, cash-based rooming houses, and over-declare their rental profits to the government.

Often, they have a relative or even a stranger purchase the property, when really they are the financial beneficiary. These various schemes are difficult to trace on their own. When they are combined, they form what Comeau has called the "money laundering rabbit hole".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A new report estimates that about C$5bn was laundered through British Columbia real estate

Different international jurisdictions complicate the matter, he says, as does the fact that the initial alleged crime may have happened in another country.

Even if a law-enforcement officer pins down the source of one shell-company, the organisation can easily layer more trusts, in more jurisdictions, through more intermediaries.

"You have to work your way back, and that's almost an impossible job to do," he told the BBC.

Who does it harm?

It is a mistake to think that white-collar crime is victimless, Comeau says.

"People think oh it's money laundering it's got nothing to do with me," he says.

"Money laundering... is pressing real estate out of the market for an entire generation of Canadians. Millennials are getting killed."

Real-estate is not like casinos or luxury cars - two other industries German identified as being ripe for money laundering scams. With only so much available land to develop and a growing population always in need of new homes, fluctuations in the real-estate market affect not just the economy as a whole but people's everyday lives.

The panel of experts estimates that money laundering in the real-estate industry inflated the cost of real estate by about 5%, adding to the affordable housing crisis in the province.

From an international perspective, money laundering in Canada by international cartels like the Sinoala contributes to violence around the world. He estimates that for every aid dollar sent abroad, Canada gets 10 back to launder.

"We are complicit in all of those crimes... drug trafficking, human trafficking, corruption - we're part of that, because of our weak laws," Comeau says.

How do you stop it?

Although Canada's formal banking industry has strong beneficiary reporting obligations, many industries - including real-estate - do not.

Comeau, German and many others are calling on Canada to make a national registry of beneficial ownership, so that the person that benefits from the purchase or sale of real estate cannot hide behind a trust or company.

The UK created a public registry in 2016, but has struggled to extend the rules to overseas territories like the Cayman Islands.

The panel of experts commissioned by the BC government also called for better information sharing between law enforcement agencies, and more regulation amongst real-estate professionals like mortgage brokers.

These calls to action have made waves. The BC government has introduced a new law that would create a public real-estate registry.

Failure to comply could lead to a $100,000 fine, or 15% of the property's value, whichever is greater. Comeau believes there should also be jail time.

If it's impossible to trace the source of the funds in the rabbit hole, he argues we must make it illegal to obscure their source to begin with.

But Ottawa has yet to say whether they would take the step of making a national public registry. In the absence of one, money laundering activity in Vancouver could simply move to a more favourable jurisdiction.