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The cityscape is pictured in downtown Vancouver, on Dec. 22, 2016. A recent Globe and Mail investigation identified people connected to the local fentanyl trade who are also private lenders, using Vancouver-area real estate to clean their cash.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Structural changes are required to clamp down on the unregulated private lending networks that drug traffickers are using to launder their illicit gains, a Simon Fraser University criminologist says.

A recent Globe and Mail investigation identified people connected to the local fentanyl trade who are also private lenders, using Vancouver-area real estate to clean their cash.

Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at SFU, said the complexity of these private lending networks and similar white-collar crimes make them notoriously hard to prosecute.

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"Sometimes you can uncover it, but to prosecute it, to get the evidence, to go to court and convince a judge is incredibly difficult," Prof. Boyd said.

"The resources required to prosecute in this area are really considerable, in contrast to a lot of the street-level crime that shows up in our courts. I think the solutions there are at the level of structure, putting in place systems that make this movement of money much more accountable."

The Globe investigation identified, for example, Ying Zhang, Zhi Guang Zhang and Wei Zhang, a trio of private lenders that has issued millions of dollars in registered mortgages and short-term loans. In all, The Globe identified 12 private lenders associated with the illicit drug trade and other crimes.

Just as a bank does, they grant a loan, then register a land-title charge against the borrower's real estate equal to the value of the debt, plus interest. The charge, which gives them a stake in the real estate, remains in place until the debt is cleared. If the property is sold, the loan is paid out from the sale proceeds, in clean money, all seemingly legal.

Except these financiers are unregulated and unlicensed, and the loans they grant are in cash likely derived from drug deals or other crimes. The Zhangs charge interest rates of up to 39.6 per cent, with some private lenders demanding up to 120 per cent. In the spring of 2016, police seized from the Zhangs a total of $660,970 in small bills – with traces of fentanyl and other street drugs – after watching them conduct business in and around Vancouver.

They were not charged with any crimes, but the money was seized as proceeds of crime under B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Act. The Globe has contacted the Zhangs for comment, but has received no response.

"I don't think there's any doubt that people in law enforcement would like to act against this kind of predatory conduct, but I think the problem is structural," Prof. Boyd said. "It's almost like a shadow economic system that operates: It's not legitimate, but how you control that system is going to require international co-operation and, in all likelihood, pretty significant restrictions against private lending."

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Staff-Sergeant Darin Sheppard of the RCMP's Federal Serious and Organized Crime Synthetic Drug Operations, said while the scale of the issue is not yet known, it's common for traffickers to look for new ways to launder cash. A popular newer method is through cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

"Drug trafficking and money laundering go hand in hand, and any method that organized crime can find to legitimize their money, they'll likely take," Staff-Sgt. Sheppard said. "[Private lending] is just another example."

While people such as the Zhangs may be on police radar for an apparent connection to the local fentanyl trade, Staff-Sgt. Sheppard said the difficulty lies in drawing a direct line that would result in a conviction.

"Some of the anonymity factors that go along with all the ways that money is laundered pose challenges, as is trying to draw that line from Point A to Point B when money is being filtered, or layered, through the community," he said.

Staff-Sgt. Sheppard said regulatory changes, such as stronger reporting requirements from all financial institutions, including private lenders, would help in investigating and prosecuting these crimes.

Attorney-General David Eby called the findings of The Globe's investigation "very serious and deeply troubling," and said a review expected to be complete by the end of March will be informed by its revelations.

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When asked why the lenders identified by The Globe have not been charged, Mr. Eby said police are "very engaged" in an "active investigation."

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