The UK welcomes wealthy foreign investors, but does it really care where their money comes from? Estate agents in London’s super expensive neighbourhoods are apparently agreeing to house purchases with ‘corrupt’ Russian politicians.
If you are in the UK, tune in to Channel 4 this evening to watch a revealing documentary about what really goes on between agents and super rich buyers. In ‘From Russia with Cash‘, undercover reporters pose as an ‘unscrupulous’ Russian government official “Boris’ who wants to buy a house in London for his mistress, ‘Nastya’. Despite ‘Boris’ making is clear to the agents that his funds are not from a legitimate source, the estate agents he deals with are apparently happy to go ahead with the sale and even recommend ways for ‘Boris’ to keep a low profile, according to the Guardian report.
Channel 4’s reporters used hidden cameras to film meetings with estate agents, who talked openly about previous dealings with foreign clients, government ministers – politically exposed persons, and the amount of deals which are made with some degree of anonymity. Politically exposed persons (PEPS) are individuals with access to national coffers, funds which belong to the electorate. They are government officials, their families, their associates and beyond.
Property, or real estate, is widely recognised as the best way to invest. So it should be no surprise that the proceeds of crime have found a natural home in bricks and mortar. Rules on investing and moving dirty cash are well publicised. In the UK and many other countries, Financial institutions, lawyers, accountants, dealers in high value goods and real estate agents are required to report transactions of dubious origin – those which could be hiding the proceeds of crime – to law enforcement. The penalties for not reporting suspicious transactions are severe for the institution and the individual.
Corruption and billionaires
Transparency International’s ‘Unmask the Corrupt‘ campaign looks closely at how UK property launders funds for corrupt individuals, many of whom are politically exposed persons. Funds designated for schools and hospitals – ‘Boris’ claims his money comes from a government health budget – is sent to offshore havens, shrouded in secrecy and then passed on to ‘enablers’ or gatekeepers in the UK who advise and facilitate investment. The thing is, the practice is nothing new. This is how the big money has always moved – the only difference is that now it is under scrutiny.
Forbes, the register of all things super-rich, lists London as third in the world of ‘Billionaire Cities‘. Five of the remaining nine are Asian cities – Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Mumbai sit alongside Paris, Moscow, New York and Sydney. If the corrupt are managing to get money into the UK property market, they are certainly managing it in the other countries on this list.
Will the estate agencies and law firms mentioned in this programme be investigated and will this give rise to increased scrutiny of the real estate sector in the UK? Financial Crime Asia is keen to find out.