The rapid development in The Gambia’s real estate sector is increasingly becoming a cause for concern as it is one of the sectors that are most vulnerable to the activities of money launderers.
The country continues to witness tremendous development in the construction and real estate sector with strong foreign direct investment. Almost all the major coastal and some inland towns and villages have at least one housing estate or individual properties situated randomly for sale.
However, the increased pace of economic development in the real estate sector also presents a challenge to the country. This is so because The Gambia is yet to fully develop a regulatory framework to shield itself against criminals using real estate to launder their ill-gotten money or proceeds from criminal activities.
The country’s real estate sector is said to be “currently undergoing a boom period”. This is happening at a time when drug trafficking is also booming, and drug trafficking is one of the ways criminals derive the funds they use to launder.
Various researches have proven that The Gambia is vulnerable to the activities of organised crimes, like money laundering, and drug trafficking.
A recent report by the Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA) has revealed that the laundering of illicit money is increasingly a major problem in the country.
The real estate is one of the sectors cited by the report to be most vulnerable to money laundering.
The sector has long been the preferred choice of criminals for hiding ill-gotten gains, and manipulating property prices is one of the oldest known ways to transfer proceeds illegally between parties to a deal.
The real estate sector is of high importance to the economy in general and the financial system in particular. The widespread use of mechanisms allowing households to access the property market, the elimination of personal limitations on property ownership, the economic development and growth of tourism in the country have all led to exponential growth in the number of financial transactions linked to real estate. The extraordinary range of possibilities for misusing these processes also allows suspected criminals to integrate and enjoy illegally obtained funds.
The inadequacy of Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Financing Terrorism legislation and the lack of knowledge and enforcement of the relevant laws in the country constitute an attraction to the real estate sector for criminals. Even though The Gambia has enacted the Anti-Money Laundering Act (ML Act) in 2003, this designated only 13 crimes as predicate offences for money laundering. It therefore falls short of the minimum 20 designated categories under the FATF Recommendations. FATF - Financial Action Task Force - is the global pacesetter in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing.
The Gambia Government has taken steps to prevent its financial system from being misused as a conduit for the transfer and retention of illicit funds; however, little attention is given to the prevention of money laundering in the real estate sector, which is also vulnerable to activities of criminals involved in laundering of illicit money.
Various typologies exercised by GIABA - an arm of ECOWAS responsible for the fight against money laundering and financing terrorism in the sub-region - indicate that money laundering throughout the real estate sector could easily be disguised as genuine commercial transactions.
The number of real estate and construction agents in The Gambia continues to increase and statistics have it that property prices continue to skyrocket.
FATF, the global pacesetter in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing, says emerging markets, like The Gambia, are more vulnerable to misuse of the real estate sector. Money laundering transactions can be easily camouflaged in genuine commercial transactions among the huge number of real estate transactions taking place in the country.
Complicating the matter is the fact that the country doesn’t have an average market price for real estate, but rather prices varying across sectors and districts.
Investment in the real estate sector offers advantages both for law-abiding citizens and for those who would misuse the sector for criminal purposes.
Through the implementation of international standards in recent years, The Gambia has put various measures in place within the formal financial sector – which includes, among others, banks and credit unions – in order to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing. Because of the tendency for illegal activity to move to other financial areas that may have less formal oversight or where there is relatively less potential for detection, the country must consider extending AML/CFT measures to other parts of the economy, if they want to respond successfully to this threat. For the real estate sector, this would necessarily include such key players as real estate agents, legal advisors and notaries.
The real estate sector merits closer consideration given the large scope of monetary transactions, its significant social impact, and the possible case of money laundering in the sector.
Methods of money laundering in the real estate sector
There are various ways and means that criminals use to launder money using the real estate sector. However, the development in the world, in terms of technological advancement, has made it difficult to detect all the means criminals use for their illicit purpose in the real estate sector. The known ways used to launder money using the real estate sector includes the following:
Intelligence and law-enforcement reports indicate “loan-back” transactions are used by suspected criminals to buy properties – either directly or indirectly – through the purchase of shares in property investment funds. Essentially, suspected criminals lend themselves money, creating the appearance that the funds are legitimate and thus are derived from a real business activity. The purpose of the loan is to give the source of the money an appearance of legitimacy and to hide the true identity of the parties in the transaction or the real nature of the financial transactions associated with it.
Over-valuation or Under-valuation
This technique consists of buying or selling a property at a price above or below its market value. This process should raise suspicion, as should the successive sale or purchase of properties with unusual profit margins and purchases by apparently related participants.
Manipulation of the real value of properties in relation to real estate involves the overvaluing or undervaluing of a property followed by a succession of sales and purchases. A property’s value may be difficult to estimate, especially in the case of properties that might be considered atypical, such as holiday homes which are very common in The Gambia. This difficulty further facilitates the manipulation when such a property is involved.
Corporate vehicles – that is, legal persons of all types and various legal arrangements – have often been found to be misused in order to hide the ownership, purpose, activities and financing related to criminal activity. Indeed this practice is so common that it almost appears to be ubiquitous in money laundering cases.
Apart from obscuring the identities of the beneficial owners of an asset or the origin and destination of funds, these corporate vehicles are also sometimes used in criminal schemes as a source of legal income. There are other specialised companies that carry out perfectly legitimate business relating to real estate, which have sometimes been misused for money laundering purposes.