Eastern European property: Watch out for the Mafia

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The Independent Online

Overseas property has never seemed so attractive for the British investor. Flats in emerging markets from Russia to Turkey are being snapped up because they are cheap and prices are rising rapidly.

But the cheapest areas for properties come with a secret that the salesmen rarely mention - they are rife with organised crime.

Countries in the former Soviet Union are having particular problems. The majority of senior officials are left over from corrupt communist regimes and many are feathering their nests by co-operating with gangs or even the Mafia. Bulgaria's problems with organised crime are so big they are delaying the country's entry into the EU, a deadline it may well miss because it is a major transhipment area for South Asian heroin.

Even countries with long-standing stable regimes such as Turkey are struggling to contain organised crime networks.

Just because property is not a traditional area of interest for mobsters does not mean they ignore it, says Professor Gloria Laycock, director of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London.

"Anywhere where money can be made will attract organised crime," she says.

Property prices are rising rapidly in the new EU states and the profits are attractive to organised crime, Professor Laycock says, and also constitute a handy channel for money laundering.

"Housing markets are a really good example because the sums of money are big and you can pay in cash," she says.

The consequences of handing money over to criminals can be severe, even if you are in complete ignorance. If the money can be traced to drugs, you may fall foul of money-laundering regulations.

One of the problems is that some of the countries with flourishing organised crime networks feel quite safe to visit. Latvia and Bulgaria, for example, are welcoming places with little violent crime. Organised crime works behind a smiling face, offering amazingly cheap deals.

Other countries that have recently become investment hotspots have only lately emerged from civil war, including Croatia and Montenegro. Croatia is negotiating to join the EU but this will not happen before 2010. The head of the EC delegation to Croatia was quoted last month as saying that the fight against organised crime in the country is going well, but will have to proceed faster if the situation is to be under control by the planned accession date.

Montenegro, on the other hand, is busy extracting itself from its integration with Serbia, and organised crime is still endemic. In 2004, the editor of Montenegro's daily newspaper, Dusko Jovanovic, was shot dead, apparently by the Mafia. In Serbia, the Mafia was blamed for the assassination in 2003 of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Despite the gloom, however, investors can avoid being drawn into contact with organised crime by observing a few simple rules.

Rule one is to use a reputable estate agent who speaks both English and the local language. The agent should have a base in Britain so they can be sued in British courts if everything goes wrong.

Check out the estate agents and, if you are looking at new buildings, the developers as well. Run credit checks - they only cost a few pounds but they could save much financial grief later and will also be evidence that you made efforts to ensure you were dealing with reputable people.

Do not attempt to locate dirt-cheap investment property by chatting to local people in bars. Unless you know the area intimately and speak the language fluently, this is an invitation to be ripped off at best, and at worst you can make some very bad contacts indeed.

Locate your own lawyer - never use the lawyer recommended by the developer or estate agent.

Never pay in cash, and decline to get involved if you are asked to pay officials directly. Such payments may be dressed up in bureaucratic language as "facilitation arrangements" or "consultancy fees", but they are illegal.

Don't pay large sums in deposits. Some developers ask for up to 50 per cent of the purchase price up front.

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