It’s hard to find assets squirreled away in Swiss banks or buried in an offshore company in the Bahamas. Houses, however, are difficult to hide. As anyone who owns a house knows, a real-estate purchase leaves a trail of public records. That’s why they provide relatively easy pickings for investigative journalists. Reporters may not be able to find evidence of bribery or of other corrupt acts, but with some real-estate sleuthing, it’s possible to trace where the proceeds of crime or corruption went. Following the houses, therefore, can be as productive as (and sometimes easier than) following the money.
It helps that land records are publicly available in most places – if not online, in public registers accessible to citizens. The New York Times’ recent piece on Russian billionaires gobbling up $1-billion worth of the fanciest real estate in Manhattan and elsewhere in the United States was made possible in part by the availability of real-estate records stored in online databases throughout the U.S.
In New York, it’s possible to search ACRIS, the city’s online property registry, by party (owner) name or address. Last year, my students were looking into investments made by a shadowy Chinese company in Guinea.