Stealing land - Con artists transfer titles without the knowledge of the owner

Published: Sunday | January 25, 2009

Avia Collinder, Gleaner Writer

LOCAL CON ARTISTS have turned their attention to land titles, ripping off legitimate landowners of millions of dollars.

Last year, fraudulent land transfers reported to the police totalled just over $85 million.

These involved cases where tricksters used forged documents to transfer property titles and then used these titles as collateral for loans or sold the properties without the knowledge of the legal owner.

Sixteen of these cases were reported to the police in 2008 and so far, two persons have been arrested.

In one instance in Ocho Rios, St Ann, the title for a parcel of land valued at more than $100 million, was allegedly fraudulently transferred by the operator of a paralegal service.

A 'gift'

The land, situated in Mango Valley, was put in the name of another person who said he had been given it as a gift before selling it for $5 million.

The police say it was when the real owner of the land saw persons occupying the premises that the fraud was discovered. The new tenants told investigators that they had leased the land, an arrangement about which the legal owner knew nothing.

Head of the police Fraud Squad, Superintendent Colbert Edwards, told The Sunday Gleaner that there were several similar cases, but investigations into these incidents were not yet completed.

"If the owner of the land has no reason to check on the property or title, they would not know of the problem," Edwards remarked.

The issue of land fraud was moved to the front pages last year when The Gleaner reported the alleged illegal transfer of a property belonging to Noel Strachan, the chief executive officer of the troubled alternative investment scheme, World Wise Partners.

Property seized

It was alleged that the property was seized and illegally transferred by a businessman after several unsuccessful attempts to collect almost $150 million he had invested in World Wise.

While that case was still being investigated, the National Land Agency rejected blame for what appears to be a growing problem where properties were transferred without the knowledge of the owners.

"As far as we are concerned, a registrable instrument of transfer has to be executed by all the persons on the title and stamped by the Stamp Office before the transfer is registered," Joan Walker, senior deputy registrar of titles told The Gleaner then.

"We take precautions to ensure that all documents that are lodged are properly executed. They have to be witnessed by a lawyer or a justice of the peace or other persons specified under Section 152 of the Registration of Titles Act," Walker added.