Realtors' authority needs teeth to police money laundering

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 2:06am

Legislator Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong ("Vet cash source of mainland buyers", September 24) and Keith Noyes ("Curb use of dirty money to buy flats", September 27) make excellent points about money laundering in Hong Kong.

None of these points, however, is unforeseen. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has long sought to establish, monitor and enforce the highest standards among its members. We welcome the launch this year by the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the Estate Agents Authority of a "Best Practice Checklist", incorporating our own 2011 real estate and brokerage standards

Estate agents in Hong Kong deal with some HK$10 billion worth of property transactions every year. The checklist is a major step in elevating the professionalism of estate agents and protecting the public interest. We would like to see it become mandatory.

Our standards state that property agents should "conduct business in an honest, fair, transparent and professional manner". In so acting, doubtless agents follow the Security Bureau's guidelines for estate agents in dealing with the demands of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorist Financing (Financial Institutions) Ordinance.

Outlining the responsibilities of realtors, the guide states that "the purchase of real estate is commonly used as part of the last stage of money laundering. Large amounts of illicit funds can be concealed in such a purchase … Hence, estate agents should be vigilant in … obtaining customers' information and should comply with the record-keeping requirement and internal control procedures as stipulated by the EAA." The guide flags "cash transactions in large amounts" and "unknown sources of funds for purchasing the property" as suspicious activity indicators.

Frameworks and mechanisms already exist to prevent property agents becoming conduits for money laundering. The Estate Agents Authority is the obvious body to enforce international standards against money laundering. The authority has shown a willingness to take advice from internal and international bodies.

The failure lies with the government not giving the authority sufficient staff, resources and powers to bring the profession in line with global standards. I trust that Kenneth Leung has it high on his list of priorities in the new Legislative Council to consult the authority, the ICAC and the surveyors' institution to give the realtors' authority the wherewithal it needs to become a full-fledged regulator with real teeth.

Ian Thomas, senior regulatory development manager, Asia, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors