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How thieves stole a Toronto condo in ‘total title fraud’, selling it for $970,000


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By Nono Shen

The professional photographs posted on a property tour website last year show Moffy Yu’s condo in downtown Toronto, a light-filled two-bedroom home with floor-to-ceiling windows framing sweeping views from the tallest residential tower in Canada.

Documents provided by Yu show the home was listed for $978,000 last May 11, then sold for $970,000 nine days later, near the height of the pandemic property boom. Ontario land title documents show ownership was transferred for that sum on June 15 to a new buyer who took out a mortgage with the Bank of Montreal.

But Yu, a former international student who now lives in China’s Hubei province, said she never put her home in the Aura skyscraper on Yonge Street up for sale.

Instead, she said, it was stolen.

The property was listed by an impersonator who gained access to the vacant home, staged the photo shoot, listed it and sold it, all without her knowledge, she said. In the process, the impersonator appears to have duped the buyer, two sets of property agents, lawyers involved in the sale, a major bank and the Ontario land registry.

Toronto police confirmed there was an “active investigation” into the case but would release no further details. Bank of Montreal says it’s standing by to help police, while the director of land titles placed a “caution” notice on the property title on Aug. 31.

Yu’s experience, which she called “bizarre and shocking”, is not isolated. It’s part of what investigator Brian King calls “total title fraud,” in which thieves impersonate true property owners by using fake identification.

King, of King International Advisory Group, looked into 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 firm had recently investigated several cases of total title fraud in the Greater Toronto Area. One involved a $2 million home sale.

He said the phenomenon involved “a fraudulent impostor” claiming to be the property’s owner, having “manufactured and prepared identification.”

He said total title fraud is “extremely problematic,” because both a true homeowner and an unsuspecting new purchaser are victimized.

“The property sale, although a fraudulent transfer, is all performed in the proper legal processes which adds to the complications as this has to be all undone, which can take considerable time as it all has to go through the various judicial process,” King said by email.

On Jan. 5, Toronto police asked for the public’s help to solve a different case that closely resembles Yu’s. It said that in January 2022, a man and woman listed a Toronto home for sale by using fake documents to impersonate the true owners. It was several months before the real owners, who were out of town, realized the property had been sold without their consent, police said in a news release.

Yu, 24, only noticed that “something unusual” was going on with her condo, which she bought in 2017 for more than $800,000, when her monthly property management fees weren’t charged last July.

She asked friends in real estate she knew in Toronto to look into the situation and was alarmed when they reported back that the condo appeared to have been listed and sold.

“I was freaking out and I couldn’t believe what was going on here. The whole thing was outrageous, unbelievable, and it took me a while to digest,” said Yu in an interview conducted in Mandarin.

“I felt so helpless, and I still can’t believe this could have happened to me.”

Yu, who moved back to China in 2019, said she reported the matter to police and her insurer.

The fraudulent photo tour of Yu’s apartment is still online, showing what she called “my beloved property filled with all my memories.” She said the furniture was all hers, although she didn’t recognize some small items including an orange throw pillow and a potted plant.

The real estate photography firm that posted the tour of Yu’s apartment online did not respond to an email.

A woman who answered the intercom for Yu’s apartment on Tuesday hung up when a reporter identified themselves and asked about the property’s ownership. Yu’s name was still listed on the building’s intercom.

Jeff Roman, director of enterprise media relations for Bank of Montreal, said that in “a situation like this, we strongly encourage individuals to contact the police”, and the bank was “standing by to fully support (the police) investigation.”

“Given the priority we place on customer confidentiality, we cannot disclose any further details.”

A representative for the real estate brokerage that was listed in documents provided by Yu as representing the fraudulent seller said in Mandarin that the firm was unaware of the case, while a representative of Bay Street Group, the buyer’s agency, confirmed the unit was sold last June.

Yu said the only fortunate part of the experience was that she had purchased land title insurance.

Tim Hudak, CEO of the Ontario Real Estate Association, said title fraud placed victims in a “horrible” situation, while fraudsters have become more sophisticated in forging documents.

The “smart, long-term solution” was to purchase title insurance, said Hudak.

“On average, it sells for about $1 for every $1,000 of the value of the property. If your home is worth $500,000, it would cost you $500. If your home were worth a million dollars, it would be $1,000,” said Hudak.

Hudak said previous types of fraud would involve suspects acting as buyers to open a bank account and obtain a mortgage under someone else’s name, then make off with the money.

But fraudsters impersonating owners is a new phenomenon, he said.

Most vulnerable are owners who have been absent from their homes for a long period.

“It’s important for all the professionals involved, the Realtor, the lawyer, and the banker, to check very closely identity documents,” said Hudak.

Perry Ehrlich, a British Columbia lawyer who has been practising real estate law since 1977, said title insurance was the “new school” way to safeguard against fraud.

The “old-school” way was to get a duplicate title from the land title office. “Having the duplicate title does protect you but keep it in a safe place because, without the duplicate, you can’t transfer title,” said Ehrlich.

King, the insurance investigator, said impersonators are rarely the only parties involved in title fraud.

“In most instances, the groups behind this are well organized and the people front facing on the fraudulent IDs are not typically the ring leaders who distance themselves from exposure,” said King.

“In most cases, the funds received are either quickly (with in a day or two) moved out of fraudulently obtained bank accounts also in the homeowners’ names to cryptocurrency or gold or wired overseas to make recovery efforts almost impossible.”

He said the risks had become “more problematic” during the pandemic, “as document signing was done virtually in most instances and the professionals in the process were not meeting with clients directly and physically, with identification verification (instead) being completed virtually.”

Yu said she hoped her “traumatic and painful” experience would help raise awareness of the scam. She has been describing her experiences on Chinese social media.

“I thought what happened to me was extremely rare, but a few others sent private messages to me saying they shared the same pain,” said Yu. “What I have been through wasn’t an isolated case.”

— With files from Maan Alhmidi in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2023.

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Funeral for two officers shot and killed in Edmonton scheduled for next week

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Flowers lay outside a police station for Constables Brett Ryan and Travis Jordan, who were shot and killed while on duty, in Edmonton on March 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Edmonton (CP) – Police say a regimental funeral has been scheduled for two Edmonton officers who were shot and killed in the line of duty last week.

The funeral for Travis Jordan, who was 35, and Brett Ryan, 30, is to be held March 27 at Rogers Place, the home arena for the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League.

Police say the constables were responding to a family dispute at a northwest apartment complex early Thursday when they were shot multiples times by a 16-year-old boy.

Police say the boy shot and wounded his mother during a struggle for the gun and then shot and killed himself.

The officers’ bodies are set to be transported Tuesday from the medical examiner’s office to a funeral home.

Police say the public is encouraged to show their support by lining the route.

Investigators said last week the boy’s 55-year-old mother had called 911 because she was having trouble with the teen, but there was no indication of a threat of violence or that he had a gun.

Jordan and Ryan didn’t have a chance to reach for their guns before the shooting, which was “consistent with an ambush,” Deputy Chief Devin Laforce said Friday.

He said the boy’s 73-year-old father was in another room in the apartment at the time and was not injured.

Police had previously responded to a mental health call at the home, Laforce said, and the boy had no criminal record or outstanding warrants.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.

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With overdoses up, states look at harsher fentanyl penalties

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People whose family members have died from fentanyl overdose stand at a committee meeting on Jan. 19, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. With U.S. overdose fatalities at an all-time high, state legislatures are considering tougher penalties for possession of fentanyl, the powerful opioid linked to most of the deaths. (AP Photo/James Pollard)

By Gabe Stern, James Pollard And Geoff Mulvihill in Reno

RENO, Nev. (AP) — State lawmakers nationwide are responding to the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history by pushing harsher penalties for possessing fentanyl and other powerful lab-made opioids that are connected to about 70,000 deaths a year.

Imposing longer prison sentences for possessing smaller amounts of drugs represents a shift in states that in recent years have rolled back drug possession penalties. Proponents of tougher penalties say this crisis is different and that, in most places, the stiffer sentences are intended to punish drug dealers, not just users.

“There is no other drug — no other illicit drug — that has the same type of effects on our communities,” said Mark Jackson, the district attorney for Douglas County, Nevada, and president of the Nevada District Attorneys Association, which is pushing for stricter penalties for fentanyl-related crimes.

But the strategy is alarming recovery advocates who say focusing on the criminal angle of drugs has historically backfired, including when lawmakers elevated crack cocaine penalties in the 1980s.

“Every time we treat drugs as a law enforcement problem and push stricter laws, we find that we punish people in ways that destroy their lives and make it harder for them to recover later on,” said Adam Wandt, an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He said people behind bars often continue getting drugs — often without receiving quality addiction treatment — then emerge to find it’s harder to get work.

Since 2020, drug overdoses are now linked to more than 100,000 deaths a year nationally, with about two-thirds of them fentanyl-related. That’s more than 10 times as many drug deaths as in 1988, at the height of the crack epidemic.

Fentanyl mostly arrives in the U.S. from Mexico and is mixed into supplies of other drugs, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and counterfeit oxycodone pills. Some users seek it out. Others don’t know they’re taking it.

Ingesting 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal, meaning 1 gram — about the same as a paper clip — could contain 500 lethal doses.

That’s what’s driving some lawmakers to crack down with harsh penalties, along with adopting measures such as legalizing materials to test drug supplies for fentanyl and distributing naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses.

Before this year’s legislative sessions began, a dozen states had already adopted fentanyl possession measures, according to tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And in this year, in one legislative chamber of liberal Oregon and one chamber of conservative West Virginia, lawmakers have agreed upon tougher penalties. In her State of the State speech this March, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, called on lawmakers to adopt a drug trafficking bill that includes tougher fentanyl sentences.

In Nevada, where Democrats control the Legislature, a bill backed by Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford would give one to 20 years in prison for selling, possessing, manufacturing or transporting 4 grams or more of fentanyl into the state, depending on the amount. It’s a change for Ford, who has supported criminal justice reforms including a sweeping 2019 law that, among other provisions, raised the threshold for such penalties to 100 grams. It would also remove fentanyl from the state’s “Good Samaritan” law, which exempts people from criminal drug possession charges while reporting an overdose.

“What we’ve learned is that lowering the thresholds for all drugs was overinclusive,” Ford said.

Harm reduction advocates are pushing Ford and others to rethink their support, arguing the thresholds for longer penalties can sweep up low-level users — not just the dealers the law is aimed at — as well as some who may not even know they are taking fentanyl. They warn that the state’s crime labs test only for the presence of fentanyl, not the exact amount in a mixture of drugs. Thus, people with over 4 grams of drugs containing a few milligrams of fentanyl could be subject to trafficking penalties, they say.

Rosa Johnson runs a needle exchange where she meets people who could face consequences should the stricter fentanyl bill pass. For the dozens of people that show up each day, it is rare for them to cite fentanyl as their “drug of choice.” But it’s also rare that fentanyl test strips come back negative, with the drug being “laced in a lot of things,” Johnson said.

Other lawmakers introduced two bills to create penalties for fentanyl with lower thresholds, though much of the internal debate surrounds the Ford-backed bill. Meanwhile, Nevada’s Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, a former sheriff, has vowed to introduce tougher legislation that would make possession of any amount of fentanyl the same felony threshold as fentanyl trafficking.

Both Republican-led chambers in South Carolina have passed fentanyl trafficking measures with bipartisan support, although lawmakers haven’t agreed on which version to send the governor. Senators also unanimously approved a bill allowing alleged drug dealers to be charged with homicide in overdose deaths.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford slammed colleagues for selling a “false bill of goods.” While Republican Rep. Doug Gilliam said he understood concerns about ambiguity, he said lawmakers had to send a “strong message” to drug dealers.

A Senate subcommittee heard emotional testimony from family members of people who died of a fentanyl overdose. Among them was Holly Alsobrooks, co-founder of an advocacy group that also supports more fentanyl test strips, opioid antidotes and rehabilitation centers. While Alsobrooks said there is no “perfect” solution, she said the fentanyl trafficking measures are the “best” answers she has heard.

“We are fully behind this bill,” she said. “And if people go to jail, they’re going to go to jail.”

Marc Burrows, who leads a Greenville-based harm reduction program that reports it has reversed 700 overdoses through the provision of opioid antidotes, said these bills could increase deaths by creating hesitancy among drug users to report overdoses.

“I just don’t know if a policy like this is the way to do it,” Burrows said.


Pollard reported from Columbia, South Carolina, and Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Pollard and Stern are members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit service program that places journalists in newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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