Agents are doing their job by asking awkward questions

With the tightening up controls by the State through the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (FICA) attorneys and estate agents are now obliged to ask a number of “awkward” questions regarding the origins and/or destination of sums for or from property transactions – and buyers and sellers will have to learn not to take umbrage at this, says Lanice Steward, MD of Cape Town-based Anne Porter Knight Frank.

“Anyone even vaguely aware of how property might just be used to launder illegally gained funds will understand that this probing by agents and attorneys had to become obligatory,” said Steward. “In the ongoing battle against crime, this is a necessary next step.”

Steward said that, although it may seem irksome, proof of the buyer’s or seller’s existence is now an essential first step.

“One can imagine the situation in which certain dishonest people are able to operate with false identities, trading as Mr Smith in one town or Mr Jones in another. It would also, it seems, be possible for money from property trusts to be deposited in bank accounts for which there were forged ID documents – and then removed by that fictitious person or by others apparently authorised to act on his behalf.”

Steward said that any large payment in cash should always be treated with “circumspection” and its origins investigated – as should any sums coming from abroad.

“In these cases more than one proof of origin should often be called for,” she said.

Although estate agents had been intimidated by the threatened penalties for “inadequate investigation” they could protect themselves by putting their worries in writing to FICA, said Steward.

“This should be done with the knowledge of the client, to whom it can be explained that SA is on the warpath against crooks, especially at the moment those from neighbouring African countries. If the client is honest he will have no problem with this. If he is not, the chances are he will find a way of ducking out of the deal – which, in itself, could be regarded as grounds for suspicion.”
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