Foreigners buying Aussie property illegally face jail

Those who breach law could be slapped with criminal charges, despite promised amnesty

A sign stands at the front of a house after it was sold at an auction in the Sydney suburb of Waverley in Australia.
A sign stands at the front of a house after it was sold at an auction in the Sydney suburb of Waverley in Australia. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY • Foreign investors who had admitted to illegally buying Australian real estate could be charged with money laundering and face a jail term.

This is in spite of the amnesty promised by Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey, reported the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday.

In May, Mr Hockey announced at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Tony Abbott that foreign buyers "will be forced to sell their properties but they will not be subject to criminal prosecution by the Commonwealth government".

He also announced that under the amnesty, investors would have 12 months to sell the properties, rather than the normal three-month period.

However, a spokesman for Mr Hockey admitted that the government did not arrange for these foreign investors to receive full immunity.

"Foreign investors making full disclosure and trying to do the right thing will not typically be referred for criminal investigation to the Australian Federal Police," she said.

"However... other legal breaches, including in taxation, immigration, or criminal laws, these are matters for potential investigation and/or referral to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) for prosecution."

Although they voluntarily came forward, these investors can still be investigated and prosecuted by the Australian Federal Police and the CDPP under proceeds of crime laws, reported the Herald.

The funds made from the sale of their properties could be deemed as proceeds of crime and seized. The investors could also be charged with money laundering.

If convicted, they face jail terms of up to 25 years, fines of up to A$255,000 (S$264,500), and may have to forfeit their properties.

So far, five foreigners have come forward and admitted to illegally buying homes worth between A$152,000 and A$1.86 million.

However, the Herald added that it "understood that the Abbott government does not support using anti-money laundering and proceeds of crime laws against foreign purchasers prosecuted outside the moratorium period."

The policy blunder comes as Australia launches a crackdown on foreign investors who breach rules which ban non-residents or short-term visa holders from buying existing houses. Such buyers can purchase only new dwellings, off-the-plan properties or vacant land for development.

Mr Hockey told a press conference in Sydney earlier this month that the government was investi-gating 462 cases of suspected illegal purchases.

The government also announced in May that it would increase penalties for illegal purchases to rigorously enforce rules under which foreigners are allowed to only buy new dwellings, and not existing residential property.

Foreigners who illegally buy Australian real estate face up to three years in jail or fines of A$127,500 for individuals and A$637,500 for companies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'Foreigners buying Aussie property illegally face jail'. Subscribe