Future Bible theme park or flooded sand quarry?
“Straw buyer” mortgage scams are often associated with handwritten “real estate investors wanted” signs stapled to telephone poles. Call the number on the sign and someone might just offer you $5000 to buy a house for them, using your good credit and good name. After closing, just transfer the deed to them and they will take over the payments. Then they disappear before you can transfer the deed and you are stuck with a house you overpaid for and are legally obligated to make mortgage payments. You can’t report them to law enforcement, as you have just become a part of the mortgage fraud. The FBI has already labeled the practice of using straw buyers to mislead a lender as illegal.
Straw buyers are sometimes employed in commercial mortgage scams, too, but are likely to be knowing participants in the fraud. They may be recruited in a LinkedIn group by someone offering $50,000 to help them buy a commercial property. For a clever person down on his luck, this can seem like good money.
The straw buyer has to come up with a believable enterprise that would make a purchase offer and a compelling story that would justify an unwarrantedly high offer.
In one such case, a hyperscale computing startup company sought a location at the edge of a southwestern city and chose a 70-acre parcel to build a 100,000 square foot headquarters building. Their CEO presented me with an unsigned purchase contract for $8.5 million, of which $4.5 million would be provided by my client as a first mortgage loan and the remaining $4 million would be seller financing. I am always on the guard against “soft second” financing, which is tacitly a forgivable loan, so I checked the preliminary title report and the listing history of the property for some answers.
Red flag no. 1: The preliminary title report ordered for the buyer requested only $4.5 million of coverage, not $8.5 million.
Red flag no. 2: The property had been listed for sale on LoopNet for 28 months and the sellers renewed their listing 8 days previously at a price of $6.9 million.
Red flag no. 3: The sellers, who were local, never tried to contact me or meet me at their site, a situation I find common in straw buyer scams. They count on their straw man to do their selling. Most other sellers want to be there when I visit and can be pushy as hell.
Red flag no. 4: The borrower’s company had no history. A check of LinkedIn indicated several employees scattered around the country, but way too few employees to justify a 100,000 square foot headquarters building. The company web site was supposedly under construction and had the cryptic statement, “We are in stealth mode”. This statement is now 6 years old.
When the appraised value ended up being too low, the CEO insisted on having the appraised value increased, even flying across the country to bother the lender. I told the lender to ask him why he does not make the same effort to have the purchase price reduced; after all, this shopworn property was already listed for sale at $1.6 million below the contract purchase price. The borrower responded that he didn’t want to bother the sellers. He instead ordered an MAI appraisal which claimed that the property was worth $10 million.
Then I ordered a background check on the CEO and everything became clearer. While I expected someone with perhaps a PhD from Cal Tech or Stanford, instead I found someone with a bachelor’s degree in political science who kept on moving around from apartment to apartment, had a bankruptcy on his record, as well as a criminal conviction for check fraud – perhaps the type of guy who would respond to a “real estate investors wanted” ad.
In a more colorful straw buyer scam, I was sent to a Southern state to visit the site of a proposed Biblical theme park, seen in the above photo. The developer had a purchase contract for $3 million but stated that the property was really worth $12 million. Although this developer claimed to have an office near the airport, he insisted that I meet him at a Denny’s restaurant near the site. (I prefer to meet real estate developers at their offices just to prove to me that they are real developers.)
I had already tried to run a background check on this man, but his name was so common, I could not distinguish him from many other people. I found his LinkedIn profile, but he had no history that extended back farther than 5 months. He claimed to have an MBA from Harvard. I e-mailed the HBS registrar and they replied that there was no record of him as an MBA student.
After a one hour presentation at Denny’s of marked up surveys and a singularly unusual illustration,
he drove me to the site in a rented subcompact car. The site was an abandoned, flooded sand quarry. I commented that a lot of the land was under water, and he responded that much of Disney World was built on Florida swampland and that the water would suit his “Jesus walking on water” and “Moses parting the Red Sea” exhibits. But quarry water can be deep, and the only uses I have seen quarries repurposed for are agricultural or fishing uses.
(The above illustration, titled "Babylon", was located by Google search as created by Austrian artist P. Pirker in 2007 and is available for free download at fantasyartdesign.com . It has been downloaded 17,302 times since 2007.)
His survey indicated that the parking lot would extend into the adjacent nature preserve, and he said that the local town had approved this intrusion, although the nature preserve was state-regulated. When I walked on to the nature preserve I found four of these signs:
Researching comparable sales I found the perfect one just across the street, an abandoned sand quarry which sold for $225,000 to an organic farmer, which begged the question, how can one quarry be worth $3 million and the other just $225,000? There was no approved development plan, not even a written plan that could be shown to me. There was no sewer leading out to this site and the road leading to its southern boundary was only two lanes, but then he told me that he had searched the world for the right location for a Bible theme park, and that this was it.
I had no credulity left, but since I now knew what he looked like I did a Google image search and found him as an alumnus of Tel Aviv University (an Israeli university). But when I re-ran the background search I found no history of the man after year 1987. No addresses, phone numbers, relatives, co-workers, places of employment, property ownership, etc. It was as if he had not been in the United States for more than a quarter of a century. Israel, perhaps?
His project did not get funded, but I learned some other amazing things. The man had two legitimate social security numbers. How can this happen? The Social Security Agency explains that it assigns sequential social security numbers to an immigrating family, but a minor is permitted to request his own unique SSN, which he did at age 17 while also having his name legally changed. A background search on the other SSN showed the use of both the old name and the new name and at least one alias name.
Here are some parting thoughts. Appraisers are trained to analyze the property only; whoever owns it is immaterial because the standard definition of market value asks us to estimate what the next owner would pay for the property. In real life, though, an appraiser can be misled by false representations. Doing a background check on a commercial mortgage applicant can often clarify the loan applicant’s real agenda.