The professional photos posted to a real estate tour website last year show Moffy Yu’s apartment in downtown Toronto, a bright two-bedroom home with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer sweeping views from one of Canada’s tallest residential towers.
Documents provided by Yu show that the home was listed for $978,000 on May 11 and sold nine days later for $970,000, near the height of the pandemic real estate boom. Ontario’s land title documents show that the property for that amount was transferred 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 — right downtown — up for sale.
Instead, she said, it was stolen.
The property was listed by an impersonator who gained access to the vacant house, staged the photo shoot, listed it and sold it, all without her knowledge, she said. In the process, the impersonator appears to have defrauded the buyer, two sets of brokers, attorneys involved in the sale, a major bank, and the Ontario Land Registry.
Toronto police confirmed an “active investigation” into the case, but would not release further details. Bank of Montreal says it stands ready to help police, while its director of land titles posted a “warning” on the property title on Aug. 31.
Lengthy legal proceedings to recover property
Yu’s experience, which she called “bizarre and shocking”, is not an isolated one. It’s part of what researcher Brian King calls “total title fraud,” in which thieves impersonate real property owners by using false identification.
King, of King International Advisory Group, investigated Yu’s case on behalf of her title insurer and said he could not comment on the details 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 imposter” claiming to be the owner of the property, with “fabricated and prepared identification”.
He said total title fraud is “extremely problematic” because both a real homeowner and an unsuspecting new buyer fall victim.
“The property sale, although it is a fraudulent transfer, is all done in proper legal process which adds to the complications as this all has to be undone which can take quite some time as it is all due to the different legal proceedings must proceed,” King said by email.
‘I felt so powerless’
On January 5, Toronto police asked for the public’s help to solve another case very similar to Yu’s. It said that in January 2022, a man and a woman put a home up for sale in Toronto by using false documents to pose as the real owners. It took several months for the real owners, who were out of town, to realize the property had been sold without their consent, police said in a press release.
Yu, 24, only noticed “something unusual” going on with her apartment, which she bought for more than $800,000 in 2017, when her monthly property management fees went unaccounted for last July.
She asked real estate friends she knew in Toronto to look into the situation and was alarmed when they reported that the apartment appeared to be for sale.
“I was shocked and I couldn’t believe what was going on here. It was all outrageous, unbelievable, and it took me a while to digest,” Yu said in an interview in Mandarin.
“I felt so helpless and I still can’t believe this could have happened to me.”
Yu, who returned to China in 2019, said she reported the matter to the police and her insurer.
The fraudulent photo tour of Yu’s apartment is still online, showing what she called “my beloved possession filled with all my memories”. She said the furniture was all hers, though she didn’t recognize some small items, including an orange throw pillow and a potted plant.
The real estate photography company that posted the tour of Yu’s apartment online did not respond to an email.
A woman answering the intercom for Yu’s apartment on Tuesday hung up when a reporter identified herself and asked about ownership of the property. Yu’s name was still written on the building’s intercom.
Title insurance can help protect owners
Jeff Roman, director of corporate media relations for Bank of Montreal, said that in “a situation like this, we strongly encourage individuals to contact the police”, and that the bank was “standby to fully support (the police) investigation” .
“Given the priority we place on customer confidentiality, we are unable to disclose further details.”
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A representative of the real estate brokerage who was listed in documents provided by Yu as representing the fraudulent seller said in Mandarin that the company was not aware of the matter, while a representative from Bay Street Group, the agency of the buyer, confirmed that the unit was sold last June.
Yu said the only happy part of the experience was that she bought land title insurance.
Tim Hudak, CEO of the Ontario Real Estate Association, said title fraud put victims in a “terrible” situation, while fraudsters have become more sophisticated at forging documents.
The “smart long-term solution” was to purchase title insurance, Hudak said.
“On average, it sells for about $1 for every $1,000 of the property’s value. If your house was worth $500,000, it would cost you $500. If your house was worth a million dollars, it would be $1,000” said Hudak.
Money often quickly transferred out of reach
Hudak said previous frauds involved suspects acting as buyers to open a bank account and get a mortgage in someone else’s name, then make off with the money.
But fraudsters posing as owners is a new phenomenon, he said.
Most vulnerable are owners who have been away from home for a long time.
“It is important for all professionals involved, the broker, the lawyer and the banker, to check the identity documents very carefully,” said Hudak.
Perry Ehrlich, a British Columbia lawyer who has practiced real estate law since 1977, said title insurance was the “new school” way to avoid fraud.
The “old fashioned” way was to get a duplicate title from the land title office. “Having the duplicate title protects you, but keep it in a safe place because without the duplicate you can’t transfer the title,” Ehrlich said.
King, the insurance researcher, said impersonators are rarely the only parties involved in title fraud.
“In most cases, the groups behind this are well organized and the people who come forward on the fraudulent IDs are not typically the ringleaders who back away from exposure,” said King.
“In most cases, the funds received are either moved quickly (within a day or two) from fraudulently obtained bank accounts, including in the name of the homeowners, to cryptocurrency or gold, or wired abroad to make recovery efforts nearly impossible.”
He said risks had become “more problematic” during the pandemic, “as document signing was done virtually in most cases and the professionals in the process did not meet the clients directly and physically, but identification verification (instead) became virtual completed.”
Yu said she hoped her “traumatic and painful” experience would help raise awareness of the scam. She has described her experience on Chinese social media.
“I thought what happened to me was extremely rare, but a few others sent me private messages saying they share the same pain,” Yu said. “What I experienced was not an isolated case.”