Abuse Of Our Reputable Name

By Lisa A. Tyler
National Escrow Administrator

If you think it is hard to move residential real estate in this market, try selling a timeshare! Timeshare owners today are more desperate than ever to unload unused weeks of timeshare ownership, and it is making them a target for opportunistic fraudsters. The lead story involves an epidemic of timeshare fraud, whereby a purported resort timeshare services company is swindling desperate sellers out of thousands of dollars. They have been somewhat successful at the scam because they fraudulently used one of our Company's reputable names Chicago Title Company!

The second story involves one brother trying to swindle another brother out of property ownership by selling off the property to a legitimate buyer and then forging his brother's name. Time and time again we run stories of this nature, read about what this family member did in "Nobody Will Do You In Faster Than Your Friends And Family."

We report stories about all types of criminals committing all types of crimes, but it is rare we have the opportunity to report the criminals have been caught and brought to justice. This is one of those rare occasions. In June 2011, we reported about individuals involved in a scheme whereby they would rent a property and pose as the owner. They would then use the property as collateral to obtain a home equity loan and pocket the cash. Those individuals have been caught! The authorities have arrested seven of the eight people (including some in the United States illegally), all posing as the owners of at least 20 homes. They took out $5.9 million in home equity loans and pocketed the cash. It was a much bigger ring than we first reported. Apparently, several other property owners, lenders and title insurance companies fell prey to the same scam. You can see the mug shots in the story entitled "Justice At Last!"

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Abuse Of Our Reputable Name

Borrowing the reputable name of Our Company is exactly what these fraudsters are doing. They target owners of timeshares, claiming to be a division of Chicago Title Company. Read on to find out how one savvy seller outsmarted the fraudsters and, as a result, did not fall for their scam.

An owner of a timeshare interest located in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico was contacted by a woman named Sandi Robles, a junior sales agent for Regency Resort Services, Inc. Robles told the owner she was working with a corporation looking to purchase several timeshares in Puerto Vallarta. They intended on hosting corporate retreats and using them as incentives for their employees. Robles claimed to need several units and asked the owner if he was interested in selling his timeshare. He was. Robles told him she would prepare a contract and send it to him.

The next day Robles sent him a sales contract which specified the funds from the sale would be held in escrow. Per the contract, no fees were to be paid up front. At closing, the net proceeds would be wired to the seller's bank account. The offer price was acceptable, so the seller signed the contract and sent it back to Robles.

A few days later, a woman named Jordan Parker called the seller informing him she had been retained by Regency Resort Services to act as the settlement agent on the sale of the timeshare. When the seller asked her what company she was with, she replied Chicago Title.

Parker explained the process by which the transfer would take place and informed the seller he needed to wire $2,250 to pay for the title search. Knowing his contract said no fees would have to be paid up front, the seller asked Parker why she was requesting he pre–pay for this service. She told him he would be reimbursed at closing, but the buyers were requiring the search as they needed to confirm he owned the timeshare membership. Parker told him she would
e–mail him all of the documents needed to transfer the property, including wire instructions for the payment of the title search. As promised, four documents arrived shortly after they hung up the phone.

The first document was the Escrow Agreement which was on the letterhead of Chicago Title. It included the address and contact information of one of our offices located in Chicago. The Escrow Agreement was pre–signed by Michael Webster who held the title of settlement director at Chicago Title & Escrow. The second document was a copy of their Customer Satisfaction Guarantee Policy which said, "If, for any reason, you are not 100% completely satisfied with your transaction due to a misrepresentation or error on our part or forfeiture or Breach of Contract by the Renter/Buyer, you will be entitled to a full refund of our Service Fee as well as all Commission paid to the Rental/Resale Company you are using for this transaction." The Policy was also on Chicago Title letterhead. The third document was a letter on Chicago Title letterhead, signed by Parker, which reflected the costs and net proceeds the seller would receive from the sale. It contained the same address as shown on the Escrow Agreement, and Parker's e–mail address and phone number. The last document was the Wire Transfer Form which provided the bank and account information to wire the title search fee of $2,250. The seller immediately noticed the account was in the name of an individual, Rafael Barajas Gomez, and the receiving bank was in Mexico. The seller decided to do further research on Chicago Title & Escrow before sending any money or signing anything.

He discovered Chicago Title Company has a Timeshare Resale and Escrow Division in Escondido, Calif. He wondered if Parker worked there, but realized it didn't match up with the Chicago address and phone number shown on her letterhead. He contacted the Timeshare Division and spoke with JoAnn Lockard, the escrow operations manager. At JoAnn's request, the seller forwarded Parker's e–mail containing the documents.

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JoAnn reviewed the documents and immediately noticed Parker's
e–mail address was from a Yahoo! account instead of a Chicago Title account – along with several other inconsistencies. JoAnn pointed each one out to the seller and recommended he contact our office in Chicago. The seller contacted our Chicago office and spoke with the manager, Nancy Castro, who confirmed these documents did not come from her office.

Thank goodness this seller trusted his instincts and looked further into his deal. He told Nancy, "Given the history and size of your company in Canada and the United States, I knew the name was legitimate and I would get proper direction and response to my inquiries which led me to you."

This very same day Castro was contacted by an escrow administrator in her office who received a phone call from another timeshare seller, with almost the same story. Since then, several other sellers have contacted us and all have very similar stories.

The FNF Family of Companies comprise the nation's largest provider of title insurance and escrow services – closing over one out of every three real estate transactions. We have worked hard to reach this level and earn our excellent reputation. Unfortunately, sometimes this makes us a target. The common denominators in these timeshare scams are:

  • The targets are owners of a timeshare located in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
  • All the sellers were contacted by Sandi Robles, junior sales agent for Regency Resort Services. Robles' story was the same every time. She indicated she had a corporate client looking to acquire several timeshares in Puerto Vallarta.
  • Angel Brooks, also a junior sales agent for Regency Resort Services, regularly took the file over once the contract was delivered to the seller.
  • All of the sellers were asked to wire their title search fee to Rafael Barajas Gomez.
  • The Escrow Agreement was signed by Michael Webster as the settlement director for Chicago Title & Escrow. We do not have an employee by that name working for any of Our Companies.
  • None of the settlement agents had a Company–issued e–mail address. Here are the names and contact information of the two fraudsters we know about:
    • Carolyn Davis at c.daviscte@yahoo.com; her phone number is 312.428.7238
    • Jordan Parker jparkercte@yahoo.com; her phone number is 312.428.7033

Neither Davis nor Parker are employees of Chicago Title & Escrow. I repeat; these ladies are NOT employees of Our Company and are both imposters! As a result we have reported these fraudsters to the FBI, which has opened an investigation. We have sent cease and desist messages to the offenders as well. There is no way for us to determine how many other timeshare owners have been targeted. If you are contacted by someone trying to confirm the legitimacy of a transaction, please assist them or refer them to us at settlement@fnf.com.

 

Nobody Will Do You In Faster Than Your Friends And Family

Uninsured deeds in the chain of title always pose a whole new level of risk for a title insurance company. Title officers are taught to scrutinize those types of deeds for obvious signs of forgery or other misconduct on the part of the grantors and grantees. The title officer in this particular order did just that and ultimately halted a transaction that would have inevitably caused a title claim.

An escrow officer in Chicago Title's Bakersfield, Calif. operation opened a purchase transaction for $347,000. She ordered the title report and the order was assigned to Casandra Wright, a commercial title officer. Casandra issued the report reflecting two owners of record: Maysa Alhelow, a single woman and Thomas Paul Helo, a married man as his sole and separate property.

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The escrow officer processed the order and once she received all signed documents and monies, shipped the documents for recording. It is normal and customary in California, where the property is located, to record prior to disbursing the escrowed funds. The escrow officer was waiting for recording confirmation.

When the recording package arrived Casandra noticed only Alhelow signed the deed to the new buyer, and not the co–owner Thomas Paul Helo. Casandra called the escrow officer and asked why there was no deed from Thomas. The escrow officer explained that she was told the owners had recently recorded a deed, wherein Thomas conveyed his interest in the property to Alhelow.

Casandra located the recorded deed from Thomas to Alhelow. She inspected the deed and noticed the following:

  • Deed was uninsured
  • Deed was not notarized by a Company–approved notary
  • The signature of Thomas Paul Helo appeared to be VERY different than his signature on other recorded documents

As a result, Casandra called the escrow officer and insisted Thomas sign a new deed in the presence of an employee or Company–approved notary. The escrow officer called the number she had for Thomas, but Alhelow answered the phone. The escrow officer explained the need for a new deed from Thomas. Alhelow responded Thomas could not possibly come into the office to sign the new deed as he was in Los Angeles and would not be returning anytime soon. The escrow officer informed her it was not a problem as Thomas could sign at one of our Los Angeles offices. Alhelow said she would contact Thomas.

In the meantime, the escrow officer did some research, found a Los Angeles number for Thomas and contacted him directly. When she explained the need for him to sign a new deed, Thomas confirmed he did not sign the first deed conveying his interest to Alhelow, and he had no knowledge the property was even being sold!

The escrow officer asked Thomas if he was even interested in selling the property and he stated, "No." The escrow officer immediately resigned from the transaction, knowing full–well Thomas was not going to agree to the sale.

It was later discovered that Thomas' brother, Kahir Tim Helo, had actually forged Thomas' signature on the deed. And the escrow officer and Casandra discovered Kahir is Alhelow's boyfriend! Ruth C. Escobar, who notarized the forged deed, works for a tax preparation office in Bakersfield. It is unclear as to what identification Kahir provided the notary.

Casandra's keen observation of the uninsured deed disclosed a forgery and prevented a future claim from the real Thomas Paul Helo. As a result, Casandra has received a letter of recognition from the Company and now knows which U.S. President is shown on a $1,000 bill!

Moral Of The Story
Thomas' brother and his brother's girlfriend were attempting to sell the property without Thomas knowing, so they would not have to split the proceeds with him. Our title insurance policies insure 100% against forgery. Had Our Company closed and insured the transaction, and later Thomas Paul Helo made a claim to his interest in the property, we would have had to defend our policy holder – the buyer. As the insurer, we would have had to settle with Thomas in order to obtain a valid deed and cure the title defect for the new owner of the property. Casandra's actions saved Our Company from a potential $347,000 title claim.

 

Justice At Last!

We have obtained a special bulletin from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office. It announces the arrest of several individuals connected to an identity theft ring in Southern California. We have worked with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office and local police about claims we received related to this scheme. The scheme was featured in the June 2011 edition of Fraud Insights.

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Previous editions of Fraud Insights educated Escrow Officers to be aware of the traits in this scam. To ensure this scam is not continued by other fraudsters, always be aware of transactions involving property with the following red flags:

  • Property is free and clear
  • Borrowers seek to obtain a high–interest/short term loan
  • A hard money lender is involved
  • A broker is involved
  • Borrower requests to sign documents off–site

Transactions with these characteristics should be reviewed by management prior to closing.

Reading and sharing Fraud Insights with your customers will help us fight crime in our industry.