Professional photos posted on a property tour website last year show Moffy Yu’s apartment in downtown Toronto, a light-filled two-bedroom home with floor-to-ceiling windows. floor to floor with sweeping views from one of the tallest residential towers in Canada.
Documents provided by Yu show the home was listed for $978,000 on May 11, then sold for $970,000 nine days later, near the height of the real estate boom. produce. Ontario land title documents show that title was transferred for that amount on June 15 to a new buyer who mortgaged with the Bank of Montreal.
But Yu, a former international student who now lives in China’s Hubei province, said she had never put her house up for sale in the Aura skyscraper on Yonge Street – in the heart of the city.
Instead, she said, it was stolen.
She said the property was listed by an impostor who gained access to the vacant home, staged a photo shoot, listed it and sold it without her knowledge. In the process, the impostor appears to have tricked the buyer, two groups of real estate agents, the attorneys involved in the sale, a major bank, and the Ontario land registry.
Toronto police confirmed there was an “active investigation” into the incident but would not release further details. The Bank of Montreal said it was ready to help the police, while the director of land titles issued a “warning” notice on property rights on August 31.
Long judicial process to recover assets
Yu’s experience, which she calls “strange and shocking,” is not unique. It’s part of what investigator Brian King calls “full title fraud,” in which thieves impersonate the real property owner using fake identification.
King, of King International Consulting Group, reviewed Yu’s case on behalf of her title insurer and said he could not comment on the specifics of her case.
But he said his company has recently been investigating several cases of full title fraud in the Greater Toronto Area. One involved the sale of a $2 million home.
He said the phenomenon involved “a fraudulent impostor” claiming to be the owner of the property, who had “produced and prepared identification.”
He said outright title fraud is “extremely problematic”, because both real homeowners and new buyers are no doubt victims.
“The sale of the property, even though it was a fraudulent transfer, was done according to proper legal processes, which added complexity as it had to be undone, which could take a long time. time because they all have to go through various judicial processes,” King said by email.
‘I feel very helpless’
On January 5, Toronto police asked for the public’s help to solve another case that closely resembles Yu’s. It says that in January 2022, a man and woman put a home in Toronto for sale using forged documents to impersonate the real owner. Police said in a press release it took several months before the real owners out of town realized the property had been sold without their consent.
Yu, 24, only noticed “something unusual” going on with the apartment she bought in 2017 for more than $800,000, when her monthly property management fees weren’t charged in July. last year.
She asked real estate friends she knew in Toronto to look into the situation and was alarmed when they reported back that the apartment appeared to have been listed and sold.
“I was so panicked and couldn’t believe what was going on here. The whole thing was so weird, unbelievable and it took me a while to digest,” Yu said in one interview. Interview in Mandarin.
“I feel so helpless, and I still can’t believe this could happen to me.”
Yu, who returned to China in 2019, said she reported the incident to the police and her insurance company.
The deceptive photo tour of Yu’s apartment is still online, showing what she calls a “beloved property filled with all my memories.” She said the furniture was hers, though she didn’t recognize several small items including an orange throw pillow and a potted plant.
The real estate photography company that posted a tour of Yu’s apartment online did not respond to emails.
A woman who answered the intercom for Yu’s apartment on Tuesday hung up when a reporter identified her and asked about ownership of the home. Yu’s name is still listed on the building’s intercom.
Title insurance can help protect owners
Jeff Roman, the Bank of Montreal’s director of corporate media relations, said that in “situations like this, we strongly encourage individuals to contact the police” and that the bank is “ready to fully assist”. enough (police) to investigate.”
“Given the priority we place on the security of our customers, we cannot disclose any further details.”
VIEW | Real estate agents call for more checks and balances to prevent fraud:
A representative of the real estate brokerage company listed in documents provided by Yu as a representative for the fraudulent seller said in Mandarin that the company was unaware of the incident, while a representative for Bay Street Group, the buyer’s agent, confirmed the apartment was last sold. June.
Yu said the only lucky part of this experience was that she bought land title insurance.
Tim Hudak, CEO of the Real Estate Association of Ontario, said title fraud has put victims in a “terrible” situation, while fraudsters have become more sophisticated at falsified documents.
The “smart, long-term solution” is to buy title insurance, Hudak said.
“On average, it sells for about $1 for every $1,000 of the property’s value. If your house is worth $500,000, you’ll pay $500. If your house is worth $500,000, you’ll have to pay $500. a million dollars, it would be $1,000,” Hudak said.
Money often quickly moves out of reach
Hudak said previous types of fraud would have involved suspects posing as buyers to open bank accounts and get mortgages in someone else’s name, then make money.
But scammers impersonating owners are a new phenomenon, he said.
The most vulnerable are owners who have been away from home for a long time.
“It is important for all relevant professionals, Realtors, lawyers and bankers to check identity documents very closely,” said Hudak.
Perry Ehrlich, a British Columbia attorney who has practiced real estate law since 1977, says title insurance is the “new school” way to protect against fraud.
The “old school” way is to get a duplicate title from the land title office. “Having a duplicate title protects you,” says Ehrlich, “but keep it in a safe place because without duplicate titles you can’t transfer titles.”
King, the insurance investigator, said impostors are rarely the only party involved in title fraud.
“In most cases, the groups behind this are well organized, and the people in front of the fraudulent IDs are usually not the ringleaders who stay out of touch,” says King. .
“In most cases, the money received will quickly (within a day or two) be transferred out of a bank account fraudulently obtained in the name of the homeowner into crypto or gold or transferred overseas makes recovery efforts nearly impossible.”
The risks have become “more problematic” during the pandemic, he said, “as most cases involve virtual document signing and experts in the process do not meet customers in person. , identity verification is (alternatively) completed virtual.”
Yu said she hopes her “traumatic and painful” experience will help raise awareness of the scam. She described her experiences on Chinese social media.
“I think it’s extremely rare that it happened to me, but some other people have sent me private messages saying they have the same pain,” Yu said. “What I’ve been through is not an isolated case.”