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Toronto real estate is vulnerable to money laundering

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Toronto’s booming real estate market is vulnerable to money laundering because real estate agents aren’t notifying authorities of suspicious property transactions, leading the national anti-money laundering agency, FINTRAC, to step up its audits of the industry.

Real estate agents are required by federal law to file “suspicious transaction reports.” From 2013 to 2017, there were more than 2.5 million real estate transactions in Canada, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. In that same five year period, real estate agents and developers made only 197 suspicious transactions reports.

“These reports are critical to the centre’s analytical process and the financial intelligence it generates for police, law enforcement and national security agencies,” writes FINTRAC in its latest annual report. “Because suspicious transaction reports have a narrative component, these reports have the potential to provide tremendous intelligence value to the centre.”

The small number of reports shows that relying on real estate agents to catch money launderers isn’t going to work, said John Pasalis, the founder of the real estate analytics website Realosophy. “It’s self-reporting,” he said. “People are not going to police themselves.”

Large commissions create a perverse financial incentive for agents, Pasalis says, deterring them from filing reports.

“In a lot of these cases, the agents know what’s going on,” he said. “The expectation that the people doing it are actually also going to raise their hand and say: ‘By the way I’m helping someone launder money.’ I mean it’s a little bit silly, right?”

This month, the parliamentary finance committee recommended stricter anti-money laundering rules for the real estate sector, which it said is “highly vulnerable” to money laundering.

“We see it as a serious issue,” Liberal MP Wayne Easter, chair of the committee, told the Star. “We want to stop those using the real estate industry for alterior motives.”

Read More:

Canada’s money laundering laws filled with gaps, report says

FINTRAC has stepped up its enforcement efforts, carrying out 152 “compliance evaluations” on real estate professionals in 2016-17, and the industry has responded. Suspicious transaction reports have more than tripled in the last three years, rising from 32 to 115.

“For 2018-2019, FINTRAC has planned a significant number of compliance examinations in the real estate sector. Subsequent to these examinations should it be warranted, FINTRAC will pursue additional actions to change non-compliant behaviour, including follow-up examinations, action plans, administrative monetary penalties, or disclosure of non-compliance to law enforcement,” said FINTRAC spokesperson Dino Roberge in an email.

The FINTRAC audits have focused on Vancouver, where organized crime groups have been using real estate to launder proceeds of drug imports. This has left the Toronto market open to abuse.

International and domestic authorities have been sounding the alarm for years that lax real estate regulations and a lack of transparency are facilitating money laundering and tax evasion across Canada.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body that evaluates financial risk for corruption and crime, issued a critical report on Canada in 2016, saying this country is not compliant with international guidelines to prevent money laundering, terrorist financing and corruption — especially in the real estate sector.

“It is suspected that criminally inclined real estate professionals, notably real estate lawyers, are used to facilitate money laundering,” states the FATF report on Canada. “Organized crime groups involved in mortgage fraud appear to launder funds through banks, money services businesses, legitimate businesses and trust accounts.”

The Canada Revenue Agency has also targeted the real estate sector for tax evasion. In the last three years, CRA audits have identified more than half-a-billion dollars in unpaid taxes from real estate deals.

In 2016, FINTRAC published an operational brief on money laundering warning “the real estate sector is highly susceptible for many reasons — for example, easy price manipulation and a variety of complex options for selling/purchasing/financing with anonymity.”

The brief included a list of “indicators of money laundering in real estate” that include red flags common in the Toronto real estate market: Under and over-valuation, large cash transactions, rapid flipping, anonymous ownership, inflated mortgages, funds from countries with weak anti-money laundering laws, banking secrecy or high levels of political corruption, private sales, complex ownership structures and the use of P.O. boxes instead of real addresses.

The OECD and FATF have published similar lists, which include two additional indicators of money laundering not uncommon in Toronto property transactions: buyers charged or convicted for financial crimes and deals that involve disregard for the loss of deposit.

Though Canada is not widely recognized as a good place to launder money or evade taxes, the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers investigations have shown how dirty money is coming here, attracted by weak financial regulations and lax law enforcement.

“Criminals bring illicit funds into the Canadian financial system through methods and techniques that disguise them as legitimate financial transactions. This allows criminals to purchase assets and eventually sell them in order to enjoy the funds generated by what otherwise appear as honest activities,” the FINTRAC brief states.

Those who bring dirty money to Canada aren’t getting caught and the few that do, don’t get convicted.

“Legal persons are hardly ever prosecuted for money laundering offenses, mainly because of a shortage of adequate resources and expertise,” states the FATF report.

Of the 3,222 money laundering charges laid from 2006-07 to 2015-16, only 343 — or 11 per cent — led to a conviction. Eighty-six percent, or 2,759 charges, were either withdrawn or stayed, according to data provided by Statistics Canada.

FINTRAC says this illicit activity has systemic effects on anyone looking for a place to live in Toronto.

“In the real estate sector, the injection of illicit funds into the housing market can artificially inflate selling prices, thus making homes unaffordable.”

With files from Jessica Cheung, Michael D’Alimonte, Ricardo Serrano and Joti Grewal.

Marco Chown Oved is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @marcooved

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Anglais

Nostalgia and much more with Starburst XXXtreme

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Get a taste of adventure with Starburst XXXtreme based on the legendary NetEnt Game. The nostalgic themes are sure to capture fans of the classic version as they get treated to higher intensity, better visuals, and features. The most significant element of the game is its volatility. Patience will not be an essential virtue considering the insane gameplay, and there is a lot of win potential involved. It retains the original makeup of the previous game while adding a healthy dose of adrenaline. 

Starburst Visuals and Symbols

The game is definitely more conspicuous than before. The setting happens over a 5-reel, 3-row game grid with nine fixed win lines, which function if a succession from the left to the right reel is present. Only those players that that attain the highest win per bet line are paid. From a visual standpoint, the Starburst XXXtreme slots illustrates lightning effects behind the reels, which is not surprising as it is inherited from the original version. Available themes include Classic, Jewels, and Space. The game is also available in both desktop and mobile versions, which is advantageous for players considering the global pandemic. According to Techguide, American gamers are increasingly having more engaging gaming experiences to socialize to fill the gap of in-person interaction. Starburst XXXtreme allows them to fill the social void at a time when there is so much time to be had indoors. 

Starburst XXXTreme Features

Players get to alternate on three features which are Starburst Wilds, XXXtreme Spins, and Random Wilds. The first appears on reels 2,3, or 4. When these land, they expand to cover all positions while also calculating the wins. They are also locked for a respin. If a new one hits, it also becomes locked while awarding another respin. Starburst XXXtreme offers a choice between two scenarios for a higher stake. In one scenario with a ten times stake, the Starburst Wild is set on random on reels 2,3, or 4, and a multiplier starts the respin. The second scenario, which has a 95 times stake, starts with two guaranteed starburst wilds on reels 2,3, or 4. it also plays out using respin game sequence and features. The game also increases the potential with the Random Wilds feature to add Starburst Wilds to a vacant reel at the end of a spin. Every Starburst Wild gives a random multiplier with potential wins of x2, x3, x5, x10, x25, x50, x100, or even x150.

The new feature is sure to be a big hit with the gaming market as online gambling has shown significant growth during the lockdown. AdAge indicates the current casino customer base is an estimated one in five Americans, so Starburst XXXtreme’s additional features will achieve considerable popularity. 

What We Think About The Game

The gambling market has continued to diversify post-pandemic, so it is one of the most opportune times to release an online casino-based game. Thankfully Starburst XXXtreme features eye-catching visuals, including the jewels and space themes. These attract audience participation and make the gameplay inviting. The game also has a nostalgic edge. The previous NetEnt iteration featured similar visuals and gameplay, so the audience has some familiarity with it. The producers have revamped this version by tweaking the features to improve the volatility and engagement. 

That is characterized by the potential win cap of 200,000 times the bet. Starburst XXXtreme does not just give betting alternatives for players that want to go big. The increase of multipliers also provides a great experience. If the respins in the previous version were great, knowing that multipliers can go hundreds of times overtakes the game to a new level. 

Players should get excited about this offering. All of the features can be triggered within a single spin. Whether one plays the standard game or takes the XXXtreme spin route, it is possible to activate all of the features. Of course, the potential 200,000 times potential is a huge carrot. However, the bet size is probably going to be restricted and vary depending on the casino. It is also worth pointing out that a malfunction during the gameplay will void all of the payouts and progress. Overall, the game itself has been designed to provide a capped win of 200,000 times the original bet. 

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Anglais

‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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