The crime of money laundering continues to be a growing area of concern in the United States. Therefore, law enforcement agencies and the financial sector devote considerable time and resources to combatting these illegal financial activities. While money laundering is most often associated with banks and other financial institutions, real estate transactions can also provide cover for various money laundering schemes.
Money laundering is the process criminals use to disguise the illegal origin of their funds. Certain criminal activities generate substantial proceeds. Legitimizing, or "laundering" this money through the financial system, is a critical component for criminals to hide their activities and not draw attention to their illegally derived proceeds.
The actual process of money laundering is a three step process that is initiated by introducing the illegal proceeds into the financial system, e.g., breaking up large amounts into small deposits or by purchasing financial instruments, such as money orders, which is referred to as placement. This is typically followed by distancing the illegal proceeds from the source of the funds through layers of financial transactions, referred to as layering, and finally by returning the illegally derived proceeds to the criminal from what appears to be a legitimate source, known as integration.
A real estate transaction can be used in any one of the three stages of money laundering. For example, if an individual purchases a home and uses illegal funds as part of the down payment, this would be considered integration.
What is the fundamental issue?
Real estate professionals should understand their responsibilities in the current efforts being made to combat money laundering.
I am a real estate professional. What does this mean for my business?
The USA PATRIOT Act, the Bank Secrecy Act, and Executive Order 13224 have increased the level of the government’s scrutiny of financial transactions in an effort to prevent money laundering and block the financial dealings of terrorists. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, financial institutions are required to create anti-money laundering (AML) and customer identification programs. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and individuals. OFAC publishes a list of individuals and companies owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, targeted countries collectively called Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs).
The laws impose the following duties on real estate professionals:
- Real estate brokers and agents must report, using IRS form 8300, any single or series of related transactions in which they receive cash in excess of $10,000.
- SDN assets are blocked, and all businesses (including real estate agents and brokers) have a responsibility to ensure that they are not dealing with any SDN by checking the list provided by OFAC. The SDN list can be found at: www.treasury.gov/sdn.
At this time, real estate firms and professionals engaged in brokerage or property management activities are not required to implement formal anti-money laundering or anti-terrorist financing (AML/TF) programs, as do regulated financial institutions. However, the U.S. Department of Treasury has the authority to change this and expand coverage of these requirements. To date, the Department of Treasury implements a risk-based analysis approach, focusing regulation on high-risk entities such as financial institutions rather than non-financial professions.
In 2017, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), Treasury’s lead agency on AML/TF requirements, issued an Advisory to Financial Institutions and Real Estate Firms and Professionals to provide information on money laundering risks for real estate transactions. The Advisory provides examples of money laundering in the real estate sector, how shell companies and all-cash purchases may be linked to illicit activity, and ways in which real estate professionals’ can voluntarily file suspicious activity reports. FinCEN also continues tracking data reported by title companies involved in certain high-end real estate transactions through Geographic Targeting Orders (GTOs).
NAR supports continued efforts to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism through the regulation of entities using a risk-based analysis. Any risk-based assessment would likely find very little risk of money laundering involving real estate agents or brokers. Regulations that would require real estate agents and brokers to adopt anti-money laundering programs would prove burdensome and unnecessary given the existing AML/TF regulations that already apply to United States financial institutions.
In 2003, FinCEN issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking regarding anti-money laundering program requirements for “person involved in real estate closing and settlements” including real estate agents. NAR submitted comments stating “without evidence suggesting that regulation would substantially benefit the fight against money laundering, the burden on brokers of having to adopt and implement anti-money laundering programs clearly outweighs any perceived benefit.” In proposed rules published in 2010, FinCEN deferred proposing rules for real estate agents and others until it could conduct further research and analysis on business operation and money laundering vulnerabilities. FinCEN released its Final Rule in 2012, which continues to defer on covering real estate brokers and agents pending further study and analysis.
NAR continues to monitor closely and has worked with FinCEN to develop an educational publication informing real estate agents and brokers of their responsibilities under current law. To date, educational items have included a fact sheet, suggested voluntary guidelines, and a FinCEN/NAR podcast. The Association of Real Estate Licensing Law Officials (ARELLO) has published the NAR Fact Sheet, which is now being distributed by many state real estate offices.
Increasingly, Congress and the Administration are focusing on the lack of collection of beneficial ownership information that has allowed anonymous shell companies to fund corrupt domestic and foreign interests, such as laundering money through real estate purchases. To address this issue, legislation has been introduced that would require disclosure of the beneficial owners of a corporation or LLC upon creation to prohibit a shell company from masking the actual ownership interests. There are several bipartisan legislative measures in the House and the Senate that would require beneficial ownership information to be reported to law enforcement agencies - the information would not be publicly available - and would impose no requirements on real estate professionals. For example, the information may be collected by the individual state (S. 1454) or the state could elect to have the Federal Government collect (H.R. 3089; S. 1717).
Business Issues Policy Committee