Chinese vulnerable to title fraud

By Jun Wang Source:Global Times Published: 2015-10-15 17:28:01

Zhao made a nasty discovery earlier this year: his property - a 0.8-acre plot in the hills of Laguna Beach, California, with views of the Pacific Ocean - had been stolen.

Zhao became aware that something strange was happening when a Laguna Beach architect contacted his real estate agent asking if the land was, indeed, for sale. Several days later the land was sold without his permission.

Zhao, a businessman based in China, had bought the land in June 2012, when the market was at a low point, from Riahi for $1.58 million. According to the Orange County Recorder's office, the land was sold back to Riahi for $580,000 in July 2014 after the real estate market had switched to high gear.

According to Zhao's real estate agent, Charles Lee, when Zhao found his land had been sold, he hired an investigative team including a former FBI agent, a private investigator and several attorneys. Zhao filed a lawsuit in the civil court against Riahi, his agent, and Riahi's wife.

When asked about the transaction, she said she had "No idea about it" and then hung up. She has not responded to a follow-up interview request.

According to Lee, Zhao's investigation unearthed a plot by a group of con artists to create an imposter agent by stealing the identity of a person living in Northern California. The fake real estate agent then registered the listing for Zhao's land.

The group then fabricated and signed a sales agreement from Zhao, before getting it authorized by a notary. Lee said his client, who does not use an English name at all, always signs in Chinese. But all the fake signatures were English, he said.

Prior to this, the group had even made up a wife for Zhao - Sui Fang - to execute an inter spousal transfer grant deed that would make Zhao the sole owner of the property, so that the deed could be transferred with just Zhao's signature. But Sui Fang is not the name of Zhao's real wife; her name - Chen Jing - was found by this reporter on another legal document not related to this case.

After the transaction, Riahi had the land listed for sale again for $2,850,000, though not for long. The listing was put on hold after being on the market for just one day and was subsequently cancelled due to the lawsuit filed by Zhao.

The title fraud encountered by Zhao is one of a number of real estate scams seen in the US.

According to a study by the US Department of the Treasury, California - where many Chinese like to buy homes - is one of the leading states for suspicious activities related to residential real estate.

Overseas buyers make easy targets and are susceptible to property fraud, says Lee. Chinese make up the majority of these foreign investors.

A recent study by the National Association of Realtors shows that Chinese were buyers in 16 percent of the total 209,000 property sales made across the US for the twelve month period ending March 2015 to overseas buyers, infusing $28.6 billion into the US residential property market in that period. And Chinese like to buy expensive properties - the average purchase price is $831,800, more than three times higher than the US average of $255,600 - and usually in cash. Cash transactions make buyers more vulnerable to title fraud, because no third party, such as a lending institute, has been notified about the transaction.

Zhao's team traced the money transfers in the fraud and found that the dollars were exchanged into gold and taken to Armenia.

The court has issued an arrest warrant for Nazaryan, one of the people accused of perpetrating the fraud, but prosecutors suspect that he has fled to Moscow, according to real estate fraud coverage by the Orange County Register.

Lee suggests foreign real estate buyers and investors like Zhao get a loan whether or not they need one. Another possible method of protection is to hold the property title in a Limited Liability Company (LLC). Any transfer from this company would then require the notification of the bank and the trustees of the LLC.

While still hoping that Nazaryan might be be found and brought to a criminal trial someday, Zhao is moving towards accepting a settlement in civil courts, with a settlement conference being scheduled for November 20 in the Orange County court. According to Lee, Zhao might be able to regain his land, but his legal and investigation fees.

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