This article is Part I of a series in which we address the U.S. government’s attempts to combat money laundering in real estate transactions.
This week the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced that it was both extending and broadening its anti-money laundering efforts in the luxury real estate area to capture a broader array of suspicious transactions. In January 2016, FinCEN issued Geographic Targeting Orders (GTOs) that required U.S. title insurance companies to report beneficial ownership information on legal entities, including shell companies, used to purchase certain luxury residential real estate in Manhattan and Miami—specifically, luxury residential property purchased by a shell company without a bank loan and made at least in part using a cashier’s check or similar instrument. In July 2016 and February 2017, FinCEN reissued the original GTOs and extended coverage to all boroughs of New York City, two additional counties in the Miami metropolitan area, five counties in California (including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego), and the Texas county that includes San Antonio. Confirming that its prior GTOs generated meaningful intelligence for law enforcement, FinCEN has now extended the measures for a third time and also expanded them to include another geographic market – Honolulu, Hawaii – as well as transactions involving wire transfers, a critical payment method not covered by the prior GTOs, which focused instead on all-cash purchases.
Background Regarding Geographic Targeting Orders
A GTO is an administrative order issued by the director of FinCEN requiring all domestic financial institutions or nonfinancial trades or businesses within a designated geographic area to report on transactions any greater than a specified value. Authorized by the Bank Secrecy Act, GTOs were originally only permitted by law to last for 60 days, but that limitation was extended by the USA Patriot Act to 180 days (with renewals permitted). Historically, FinCEN’s issuance of a GTO was not publicized, and generally only those businesses served with a copy of a particular GTO were aware of its existence. Over the course of the last three years, however, FinCEN – the primary agency of the U.S. government focused on anti-money laundering compliance and enforcement – has aggressively exercised its GTO authority frequently throughout the United States in areas of money laundering concern. Recent, publicly-announced GTOs have focused on the fashion district of Los Angeles, exporters of electronics in South Florida, check cashing businesses in South Florida, and most recently, all-cash purchases of luxury residential real estate in high profile U.S. real estate markets. In each of these examples, FinCEN publicly announced the issuance of the GTO and its terms, and expressed concern that the industries or regions in question were vulnerable to money laundering. These GTOs demonstrate an increased attention to trade-based money laundering schemes by FinCEN and confirm that criminals are aggressively using legitimate U.S. businesses to launder the proceeds of their illegal activity.
Enactment of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act
FinCEN’s extension and expansion of the real estate GTOs was prompted, at least in part, by the recent passage of a wide-ranging sanctions law called the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” that was signed by the President on August 2, 2017. While primarily focused on sanctions directed at Iran, Russia, and North Korea, the law made a critical modification to the statute authorizing FinCEN to issue GTOs. Previously, that statute authorized the issuance of a GTO to obtain information regarding transactions in which a financial institution or nonfinancial trade or business is involved “for the payment, receipt, or transfer of United States coins or currency (or such other monetary instruments as the Secretary [of the Treasury] may describe in such order).” As amended, the statute now authorizes the issuance of a GTO to obtain information regarding transactions in which a financial institution or nonfinancial trade or business is involved “for the payment, receipt, or transfer of funds (as the Secretary may describe in such order).”
With the replacement of the limited phrase “United States coins or currency” with the significantly broader term “funds,” FinCEN can now issue significantly more expansive GTOs that are not limited to transactions involving cash and other monetary instruments (like checks and money orders). Indeed, in the press release announcing the GTO expansion, FinCEN Acting Director Jamal El-Hindi acknowledged that this change in the law enabled his agency to capture a broader range of transactions: “FinCEN also thanks Congress for its modification of the Geographic Targeting Order authority, the first use of which will enable FinCEN to collect further information to combat the potential misuse of shell companies to purchase luxury real estate.”
The new sanctions law also directed Treasury to expand the number of real estate geographic targeting orders or other regulatory actions in order to counter money laundering and other illicit financial activity relating to Russia. We therefore expect to see FinCEN impose significantly more anti-money laundering measures like GTOs in the coming months.
Extension of Previous GTOs
FinCEN’s announcement means that the prior GTOs covering six major metropolitan areas, which are set to expire on September 21, 2017, will be extended for an additional six months. In its press release announcing the extension, FinCEN stated that the GTOs were producing meaningful information that was advancing criminal investigations. (See prior blog coverage here.) Specifically, FinCEN announced that nearly one-third of the transactions reported pursuant to the GTOs involved a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that was also the subject of a previous suspicious activity report (SAR). An article written by Kevin G. Hall of the Miami Herald contains the following GTO data obtained from FinCEN through a Freedom of Information Act request for the period February 29, 2016, through March 9, 2017.
|County or Borough||
|Bexar (San Antonio)||4||3||75|
Of particular note are the reported transactions in Manhattan, Miami-Dade, and Brooklyn, where both the actual number of transactions and the percentages of reported transactions are significant.
Expansion of GTO Coverage to Hawaii
The revised GTOs, which effective September 22, 2017, now cover seven major geographic markets in the United States, with the addition of Honolulu, Hawaii. The markets now covered by GTOs, and the minimum purchase price thresholds in each market, are as follows:
- Bexar County, Texas – $500,000
- Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties, Florida – $1,000,000
- Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island, New York – $1,500,000
- Borough of Manhattan, New York – $3,000,000
- San Diego and Los Angeles Counties, California – $2,000,000
- San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties, California – $2,000,000
- Honolulu County, Hawaii – $3,000,000
FinCEN’s announcement is silent as to why the GTOs were extended to cover the Honolulu real estate market. The expansion of coverage to Hawaii is presumably based upon FinCEN’s conclusion that criminals are attempting to launder money through purchases of real estate in that market just as in the six markets already covered by GTOs.
Closing the “Wire Transfer” Loophole
In addition to expanding the geographic scope of the GTOs, the revisions announced yesterday also address a significant perceived weakness in the prior GTOs: they only covered all-cash transactions, and omitted from their scope any real estate transaction where the purchase price was paid by wire transfer. Critics of the prior GTOs contended that criminals could easily exploit this loophole by simply using wire transfers, rather than cash or checks, to pay for real estate purchases. The revised GTOs, which take effective in September, will apply to real estate transactions where the purchase price is paid, at least in part, using cash, check, money order, or funds transfer.
As noted above, before enactment of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, FinCEN’s authority to issue GTOs was limited to transactions involving cash or monetary instruments. With the newly expanded authority granted to it by Congress, FinCEN has the authority to issue GTOs covering transactions involving the payment, receipt, or transfer of “funds.”
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