Money laundering through real estate

money laundering
Money laundering through real estate (inforgraphic posted on visual.ly)

In the post financial crisis era, when anti-fraud units from various law enforcement agencies stepped up activity to prosecute real estate related crimes; real estate continues to be a vehicle for scammers and fraudsters.  Although mortgage fraud and identity theft have been the mainstay, money laundering through real estate has not received the same attention.  That is until this year, when a pilot program was initiated to identify money laundering in residential real estate.  The program was ordered through the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the US Department of the Treasury (FinCEN), which is tasked with the protection of our financial system by primarily combating money laundering (fincen.gov).

FinCEN’s concern is the laundering and/or structuring of money through all cash deals into luxury real estate, primarily through shell companies.  Through the use of LLC’s or other business structures, individuals can hide assets anonymously.  According to FinCEN, “Money laundering” is the disguising of funds derived from illicit activity so that the funds may be used without detection of the illegal activity that produced them.

A 2008 FinCEN report (Money Laundering in the Residential Real Estate Industry: Suspected Money Laundering in the Residential Real Estate Industry; April 2008) found that suspicious activity reports (SAR) remained steady through 2002.  However, began to increase in 2003, and sharply rose through 2005; the increase was significantly more than the rapidly expanding real estate market at that time.  Findings of the report indicated that over 75 percent of those engaging in money laundering activities were unaffiliated with the real estate industry.

The program to identify money laundering in residential real estate seemed to be the next logical step in a series of investigations.  As a result, FinCEN announced Geographic Targeting Orders (GTO) on January 13th of this year.   The GTO was enforced from March 1st, 2016 through August 27th, 2016.  And required title companies to report the individuals behind the companies buying high end real estate without financing (all cash deals), located in Manhattan and Miami-Dade County.

In an April 12th FinCEN news release, former FinCEN director Jennifer Shasky Calvery stated “The analysis and DOJ forfeiture cases continue to show corrupt politicians, drug traffickers, and other criminals using shell companies to purchase luxury real estate with cash. We see wire transfers originating from foreign banks in offshore havens where shell companies have established accounts, but in many cases we also see criminals using U.S. incorporated limited liability companies to launder their illicit funds through the U.S. real estate market.”

On July 27th, FinCEN announced the expansion of the GTO, beginning August 28th and lasting for 180 days.  The geographic areas were expanded to include: New York City; Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties; Los Angeles County; San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties; San Diego County; and Bexar County, Texas.

Increased scrutiny of money laundering in residential real estate compelled the National Association of Realtors® to issue Anti-Money Laundering Guidelines for Real Estate Professionals (realtor.org; November 15, 2012).  The voluntary guidelines state that the real estate agent’s exposure is generally “mitigated” because most real estate transactions involve financing and mortgages (which are regulated).   However, when encountering risk factors that fall outside the norm, NAR encourages due diligence and reporting of suspicious activity.

By Dan Krell
Copyright © 2016

Original published at https://dankrell.com/blog/2016/08/05/money-laundering-and-real-estate/

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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Mortgage fraud persists and is local

mortgage fraud persistsMortgage fraud persists and may never go away. Frankly it seems as if the fraudsters are becoming increasingly creative and brazen. The 2014 LexisNexis® 16th Annual Mortgage Fraud Report (lexisnexis.com) seems to agree with the sentiment, saying: “The reduced volume of consumers who are able to qualify for mortgage loans has led to a fiercely competitive and, in some ways, familiar Fraud for Profit marketplace… Ultimately, fraud and misrepresentation, especially in the mortgage application process, is likely to remain a serious and ongoing national problem.”

Looking into why mortgage fraud persists, the LexisNexis® Mortgage Fraud Report indicated that 74% of reported loans in 2013 involved some form of application fraud or misrepresentation. The increase included the misrepresentation of credit information, including credit history and references. Appraisal fraud was reported to be at a five year low; which is most likely due to the implementation of the appraisal Home Valuation Code of Conduct that reformed the relationship between the lender and the appraiser.

Mortgage fraud persists throughout the country. Although the LexisNexis® Mortgage Fraud Report ranked Florida and Nevada number 1 and 2 respectively for mortgage fraud during 2013, don’t think that other regions are immune from scammers and schemers. Mortgage fraud can pop up anywhere.  For example, I am local to the Maryland area, which is ranked 9th in mortgage fraud; which has a Mortgage Fraud Index of 110, that indicates there was more fraud than would have been expected from the number of mortgages originated.

Mortgage fraud persists and is local.

A July 21st news release from the Maryland District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office (justice.gov/usao-md) reported that a Bethesda MD man pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft that stemmed from a mortgage fraud scheme. The scheme defrauded lenders to the tune of $3.8 million by using the names of immigrants and students, as well as false financial information, to buy almost three dozen row houses in Baltimore – all are in default or foreclosure.

The scheme used “straw purchasers” to purchase the homes. The defendant told them that he would prepare mortgage applications, manage the property after purchase, and promised 80% of proceeds of a future sale. Besides paying the straw buyers cash after buying homes, the defendant also paid them for referrals of other potential straw purchasers.

In another case, a former Maryland real estate agent was recently sentenced to 57 months in prison and ordered to pay $2,482,856.05 in restitution for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft that stemmed from a mortgage fraud scheme. According to a March 31st news release from the Maryland District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the defendant and his co-conspirator help straw buyers obtain mortgages by “using stolen or false identities, false documents – including W-2 forms, earnings statements, and bank statements – and false credit information…” Straw buyers’ credit worthiness was fraudulently enhanced by creating fictitious lines of credit. The scheme also included inflated appraisals and false contract addenda to direct payments for repairs that were never made.

And it’s not just the usual suspects who are the perpetrators. The MERS scandal that erupted in 2010 not only let us see behind the wizard’s curtain of mortgage lending, but it also brought to light the notion that mortgage fraud can occur at any level. An asset manager, of a commercial mortgage special servicer located in Bethesda MD, pleaded guilty to wire fraud “in connection with a scheme to steal over $5 million from his company,” according to the Maryland District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The April 22nd news release described how he redirected funds intended to be applied to defaulted commercial mortgages.

Original published at https://dankrell.com/blog/2015/08/01/mortgage-fraud-persists-and-is-local/

Copyright © Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Appraising the Mortgage Crisis

by Dan Krell
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Although the mortgage meltdown and crisis is not new news, new information continues to shed light on what led to the mortgage meltdown. In addition to the scandals and fraud allegations at many levels, many are still unaware of the impact of appraisal practices on present market conditions.

Stories of appraisers being coerced into inflating values or providing favorable appraisals are not news. However, as Justice Department probes expand beyond subprime lenders to some of the country’s largest lenders, we may hear more about how underwriting and appraisal practices played a part in creating the bubble that burst. As the probes expand, we may begin to hear more about appraisals that were artificially inflated by coercion, collusion, and/or fraud. Some appraisers purportedly have already come forward to report how they were forced to provide appraisals that were consistent with an inflating market. Supposed consequences for not complying with lenders’ demands would result in loss of business for the appraiser.

Along with other factors, artificial, fraudulent, or misleading appraisals have played a role in historical mortgage crises, such as the Savings and Loan Crisis (of the 1980’s) and the flipping schemes (of the 1990’s). Prior to the critical mass of the S&L crisis, obtaining a real estate loan seemed relatively easy (at the time); the result was a $120 Billion (plus) government bailout. An article published in the CPA Journal (December 1989) reported that a 1988 FLHBB (now the FHLB) report to Congress referred to fraud and insider abuse as the leading factors leading to the S&L collapse; other factors identified by the report leading to the crisis was the collusion by thrift management, borrowers and appraisers to conceal losses and liabilities.

As a result of the S&L crises, the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) was created. FIRREA was to ensure that type of fraud and abuse that occurred in the S&L crisis would not happen again. Consequently, title XI of FIRREA led to licensure of appraisers, the creation of the Appraisal Foundation, as well as the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP).

In the mid to late 1990’s, mortgage and appraisal fraud hits again in the form of flipping schemes. Although not as widespread as the S&L crisis, the flipping schemes hit the subprime mortgage market very hard. In many cases, flipping schemes used artificially inflated appraisals to net a large gain to the seller (the loan officer, appraiser, and/or title agent were often in collusion).

Interestingly, real estate market declines followed both the S&L crisis and the flipping scandals. The large buyer’s market and recession occurred at the tail end of the S&L crisis in the early 1990’s.

Currently, investigations are reportedly focusing on practices to hide decreased portfolio values sold on secondary markets. In addition to the allegations surrounding appraisals, lenders’ have also used Broker Price Opinions (BPO) to ascertain values on portfolios as well as for lending purposes. BPO’s are usually completed by real estate agents or brokers who typically have no appraisal training; additionally the BPO typically does not follow USPAP.

If it is not yet clear, history is repetitive and cyclical. Our response this time, however, can undermine the next real estate crisis.

This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of March 10, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Dan Krell.

 

(Post Script – Today, Congress is to release report outlining causes for present mortgage crisis.)