Geographic Targeting Order (GTO)

Are Proposed AML Regulations for Real Estate Closings and Settlements Soon to Follow?

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FINCEN”) announced on November 15 that it has renewed and revised its Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) that require U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind legal entities used in purchases of residential real estate performed without a bank loan or similar form of external financing.  The new GTOs extend through May 15, 2019.

Notably, the list of covered geographic areas has expanded, and the monetary threshold has been reduced significantly to $300,000, so that it now no longer applies only to so-called “high end” real estate purchases.  Further, purchases involving virtual currency are now included within the reach of the GTO — an expansion which is consistent with prior expansions which extended the GTOs’ reach to transactions involving wires and personal and business checks.  Currently, the GTOs broadly apply to any purchases made using currency or a cashier’s check, a certified check, a traveler’s check, a personal check, a business check, a money order in any form, a funds transfer, or virtual currency.

A “legal entity” subject to the GTO reporting regime is defined as “a corporation, limited liability company, partnership or other similar business entity, whether formed under the laws of a state, or of the United States, or a foreign jurisdiction.”  The “beneficial owner” who must be identified is defined as “each individual who, directly or indirectly, owns 25% or more of the equity interests of the Legal Entity purchasing real property in the Covered Transaction.”  This definition tracks the Beneficial Ownership rule issued by FinCEN in 2016 for customer due diligence by covered financial institutions for new legal entity accounts by focusing on 25% or more ownership percentage, but it differs from the Beneficial Ownership rule by not including a “control” prong in its definition of a beneficial owner.

The press release issued by FinCEN for the new GTOs summarizes things well and is set forth here:

The purchase amount threshold, which previously varied by city, is now set at $300,000 for each covered metropolitan area. FinCEN is also requiring that covered purchases using virtual currencies be reported. Previous GTOs provided valuable data on the purchase of residential real estate by persons implicated, or allegedly involved, in various illicit enterprises including foreign corruption, organized crime, fraud, narcotics trafficking, and other violations. Reissuing the GTOs will further assist in tracking illicit funds and other criminal or illicit activity, as well as inform FinCEN’s future regulatory efforts in this sector.

Today’s GTOs cover certain counties within the following major U.S. metropolitan areas: Boston; Chicago; Dallas-Fort Worth; Honolulu; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Miami; New York City; San Antonio; San Diego; San Francisco; and Seattle.

FinCEN appreciates the continued assistance and cooperation of the title insurance companies and the American Land Title Association in protecting the real estate markets from abuse by illicit actors.

The reporting is done through a special Currency Transaction Report, or CTR; the template for GTO reporting is here. Covered entities must retain relevant records for five years from the last effective day of the Orders (i.e., May 15, 2024) and must make them available to FinCEN and upon appropriate requests by law enforcement. FinCEN continues to maintain FAQs regarding the GTOs.

The latest GTOs represent a sustained scrutiny of the real estate market by FinCEN which began almost three years ago, and which has been expanded through repeated six-month increments.  The initial GTOs were issued in January 2016 to only certain title insurance companies for certain purchases only in the Borough of Manhattan and Miami-Dade County.  Clearly, FinCEN finds the data gleaned from GTOs to be very useful; FinCEN previously has claimed that it “about 30 percent of the transactions covered by the GTOs involve a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that is also the subject of a previous suspicious activity report.”

These sustained and expanding GTOs are also clearly part of the ongoing scrutiny by regulators across the globe regarding the issue of beneficial ownership and its role in potential money laundering schemes, as well as a similar global focus on money laundering through real estate and the general role of third party professionals who may facilitate money laundering.  As we have blogged, both FinCEN and the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) have focused for years on the AML risks inherent in real estate. For example, the December 2016 FATF Mutual Evaluation Report on the United States’ Measures to Combat Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing repeatedly highlighted the need for U.S. regulators and the real estate industry to do more to address money laundering and terrorist financing risks.  The FATF report’s executive summary asserted that “Residential Mortgage Lenders and Originators [RMLOs] . . . do not seem to have a good understanding of [money laundering] vulnerabilities in their sector or the importance of their role in addressing them.” The body of the FATF report elaborated that, “although banks have reasonably good AML/CFT programs overall, the same cannot be said of RMLOs, whose programs are still in the early implementation stage . . . .”

Future AML Regulation for Real Estate Closings and Settlements?

FinCEN’s press release states that the new GTOs “will inform FinCEN’s future regulatory efforts in this sector.” Presumably, FinCEN is using the data collected over the last three years to prepare to propose regulation which will formalize FinCEN’s scrutiny of the residential real estate market.  Indeed, the website for the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs currently states that, by the end of 2018, “FinCEN will issue an [Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making] soliciting information regarding various businesses and professions, including real estate brokers that could be covered by the BSA as persons involved in real estate closings and settlements[,]” with the comment period to extend through to December 2019.  Over 15 years ago, in April 2003, FinCEN issued a similar advanced notice of proposed rule making regarding AML program requirements for persons involved in real estate closings and settlements — but of course never issued a final rule.  Now, given the data from years of GTOs, coupled with the heightened global scrutiny of the real estate industry, such regulations finally may become a reality.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.

In its “Risk Outlook, Autumn Update” (“Update”) released last week, the Solicitor Regulation Authority (“SRA”), a regulator of solicitors and law firms in England and Wales, found that although the legal sector remains at “high risk of exploitation for money laundering,” reports made by legal practitioners to law enforcement of suspicious, money laundering-related activities dropped by nearly 10% last year. The Update then explores the AML risks associated with legal services.See the source image

As we will discuss below, many of the issues addressed by the SRA Update resonate with similar Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) issues which have been brewing recently in the United States — such as the issues of beneficial ownership, the potential use of real estate in money laundering, and lawyers as “gate keepers.”  Of course, however, the very notion of legal practitioners reporting their clients to law enforcement for suspicious activity — a practice which represents a given to the SRA Update in light of U.K. law reporting requirements — remains deeply antithetical to basic notions of client confidentiality and loyalty held by the U.S. legal profession and courts.  We will discuss here this unique convergence of (i) very similar AML issues and concerns confronting the U.K. and the U.S., and (ii) drastically different approaches — at least to date — as to the appropriate duty of lawyers to report the conduct of their own clients to the government. Continue Reading U.K. Regulator Critiques Legal Industry AML Compliance

FinCEN has announced the expansion of its Geographical Targeting Orders (GTOs) for high-end cash buyers of real estate. The expansion is two-fold. First, FinCEN has expanded the scope of Form 8300 reportable transactions to include “funds transfers” in addition to currency, cashier’s checks, certified checks, traveler’s check, personal checks, business checks, or money orders in any form. Second, FinCEN has added real estate transactions with a total purchase price of $3,000,000 or more in the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii. This brings the markets covered to seven metropolitan areas.

The renewed GTOs require title insurance companies to identify and report on the natural persons behind shell companies that make covered transactions. The renewed and expanded GTOs will be in effect from September 22, 2017 through March 20, 2018. FinCEN has again praised the “assistance and cooperation” of the title insurance industry in this effort.

On the same day as the GTO expansion, FinCEN published an “Advisory to Financial Institutions and Real Estate Firms and Professionals.” This Advisory is in line with our expectation that FinCEN would further expand their supervisory and enforcement activity in the real estate market, as recommended by the FATF in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report and highlighted in an April 12, 2016, speech by former FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery.

Continue Reading FinCEN Continues Its Focus on Real Estate Transactions through Advisory and GTOs

On Friday, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a civil forfeiture complaint in the Southern District of Texas seeking recovery of approximately $144 million in assets that allegedly represent the proceeds of foreign corruption and which were laundered in and through the U.S. The complaint’s narrative focuses on Diezani Alison-Madueke, who is Nigeria’s former Minister for Petroleum Resources.  The 52-page complaint, which contains additional attachments, is very detailed – but nonetheless interesting reading – so we will discuss here only three salient points:

  • The most eye-catching property subject to forfeiture, the spectacular yacht Galactica Star (which you can inspect here), apparently has no discernible nexus to the U.S. – except that the funds used to acquire the yacht allegedly were transferred through correspondent bank accounts at financial institutions which process their U.S. dollar wire transactions through the U.S.
  • The complaint emphasizes the continued enforcement focus on high-end U.S. real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering from abroad.
  • The complaint purports to quote a recording of a conversation allegedly made by Ms. Alison-Madueke herself, in which she allegedly offers a co-schemer some critiques on his approach to laundering illicit funds.

Continue Reading Alleged Nigerian Oil Industry Corruption and Civil Forfeiture: More Extraterritorial Application of U.S. Law; More High-End Real Estate; and Advice on Laundering

This week, we have the opportunity to lead a discussion with real estate industry professionals about AML and CFT trends at the Real Estate Services Providers Council, Inc. (RESPRO®) Annual Conference in Las Vegas. We have written several times in this blog about the real estate industry, including the 2017 extension of the GTOs for title insurance companies, other recent FinCEN activities, and the FATF’s conclusions regarding real estate in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report.

We are very pleased that Anne Marie Minogue of Navigant will be joining us on the panel. The real estate industry operates differently in different states and efforts to enhance AML and CFT supervision and enforcement will need to reflect this complexity. RESPRO members include a broad range of industry participants that will be affected by further actions by FinCEN so we are looking forward to the discussion.Beautiful Swimming Pool at an Estate HomeIf you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

FinCEN announced today that it is renewing the existing Geographical Targeting Orders (GTOs) issued in July 2016 that require all title insurance companies to identify and report on the natural persons behind shell companies that make cash-only purchases of high-end real estate in six major metropolitan markets. The renewed GTOs will be in effect from February 24, 2017 through August 22, 2017.

The initial real estate GTOs were issued to certain title insurance companies (including their subsidiaries and agents) in January 2016 for purchases in the Borough of Manhattan and Miami-Dade County. The July 2016 orders being renewed today expanded the scope of the GTOs to cover all title insurance companies and to include numerous counties in six major metropolitan areas.

The renewal of the GTOs was anticipated. In today’s new release, FinCEN noted that it “has found that about 30 percent of the transactions covered by the GTOs involve a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that is also the subject of a previous suspicious activity report.”

As highlighted in our 2016 Year in Review, FinCEN has increased its focus on AML risks in real estate. We expect FinCEN to further expand their supervisory and enforcement activity in the real estate market, as recommended by the FATF in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

In January 2016, FinCEN issued two geographic targeting orders (GTOs) aimed at combating money laundering in all-cash real estate transactions in the Borough of Manhattan, New York, and Miami-Dade County, Florida—two areas identified by FinCEN as having “a higher than average percentage of all-cash transactions.” The GTOs, which took effect in March 2016, required certain title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind entities using cash to purchase high-end real estate—properties with a sales price of more than $1 million in Miami-Dade County and more than $3 million in Manhattan.

Continue Reading 2016 Year in Review: Real Estate Risks and Mortgage Lender Compliance – FinCEN’s Increasing Focus on AML Risks in Real Estate

The December 2016 FATF Mutual Evaluation Report on the United States’ Measures to Combat Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing repeatedly highlighted the need for U.S. regulators and the real estate industry to do more to address money laundering and terrorist financing risks.

The FATF report identified “high-end real estate” transactions as an area needing priority action. In the report, the FATF assessors recommend that FinCEN take further action after analyzing the outcomes from FinCEN’s 2016 GTOs for high-end cash transactions in several U.S. real markets.

Continue Reading 2016 Year in Review: FATF Report Highlights Real Estate Risks and Mortgage Lender Compliance Shortcomings