Impostors attempting to take out liens on a property, people trying to swindle the elderly out of their homes or anyone falsifying real estate documents are going to be in San Mateo County prosecutors’ scope as they look to crack down on fraud.
The District Attorney’s Office is ramping up its efforts to investigate and prosecute real estate fraud with the help of a $3 document fee the county Board of Supervisors approved last week.
With property values at a premium and forgery an ongoing threat, the county set up a Real Estate Fraud Prosecution Trust Fund that will be used to investigate criminals and hold them accountable. Often, these types of crimes end up in civil court where victims don’t always have the resources needed to secure justice. Now, these cases can more readily be treated as a criminal matter, said District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
Some people think “if it’s just a theft or property crime, it’s not that serious. [But] it can devastate people, their life savings can be thrown out the window, the home their mother lives in can be stolen, those are real victims,” Wagstaffe said. “And we don’t want them to be ignored.”
With rising property values and the average single-family home going for nearly $1.25 million, Wagstaffe noted some criminals may think the risk is worth the reward.
Establishing this type of fund was first codified by the Legislature, following the Great Recession. It was inspired by the countless people who found themselves underwater in their mortgages and susceptible to predatory foreclosure rescue scams or other real estate schemes. Initially, these types of crimes didn’t appear to be significantly widespread in San Mateo County but, after receiving a state grant, Wagstaffe said they decided to further study the issue.
Since 2014, the District Attorney’s Office found nearly 300 complaints of real estate fraud. Currently, prosecutors are working on three cases that Wagstaffe said highlight the range of crimes affecting victims.
One alleged crime currently being investigated involves a group that allegedly attempted to swindle an apartment building owner out of his property. The building with an estimated two dozen units had been put up for sale and a purported buyer was in escrow when it was discovered they’d been engaged in fraudulent activity, Wagstaffe said.
The alleged criminals even tried to record with the county forged documents, such as deeds naming them as the owner and attempted to put liens on the property. When that didn’t work, they began directly contacting the tenants in an attempt to divert the rent checks to themselves instead of the rightful owner, Wagstaffe said.
Another case currently being prosecuted is against a woman who while in the midst of a divorce allegedly submitted forged documents in court. Linda Haskin-Golorsky, a Foster City woman who calls herself “Princess Leia Lucas,” is now facing multiple felonies after a family court judge recognized she provided false documentation in divorce proceedings, Wagstaffe said. Haskin-Golorsky allegedly forged a deed to the home she and her husband owned in an attempt to make it appear as though she had purchased it before their marriage, according to prosecutors.
That case was referred to prosecutors by the Family Court judge overseeing the case and has the woman facing time behind bars if convicted, Wagstaffe said.
Another type of case that is unfortunately all too prevalent crosses into the elder abuse category. A jury is currently reviewing a case against an East Palo Alto woman who allegedly took advantage of her 96-year-old aunt who was cognitively impaired. Shirley Remmert is accused of convincing her elderly relative to sign over a deed to her home, according to prosecutors.
Wagstaffe noted real estate fraud investigators will be working hand in hand with the elder abuse unit and the county Health System’s Adult Protective Services to identify potential victims.
He’s also hoping that people will start to realize that such fraud isn’t always just a civil matter or simply writing off a business loss, but that it can be a prosecutable crime.
In developing the idea, Wagstaffe said they worked with the San Mateo County Association of Realtors, which was supportive of weeding out fraud that may be occurring in the field.
Of California’s 58 counties, 31 have implemented these types of fees to aid in prosecution of fraud. Recently, the state increased the allowable amount up to $10, but Wagstaffe said they’re going to start at the low $3 end to see how it goes first. The fee will apply to those looking to record “real estate instruments” such as deeds of trusts, an abstract of judgment, an affidavit, assignment of rents or a lease, covenants, easements, a lease, a lien, a notice of default and more. The fee is expected to generate $325,000 a year and support one full-time investigator and a prosecutor to dedicate about a third of their time, according to a staff report.
Furthermore, in highlighting the county’s commitment to curbing fraud, Wagstaffe said hopefully criminals will be deterred from looking to victimize local property owners.
“Criminal law gives it some teeth,” Wagstaffe said. “For anybody thinking there’s an easy way to get some easy money by cheating, hopefully they’ll be discouraged if [they know] we will arrest and prosecute them.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106