Embassy offers no help for property theft victims

U.S. citizens caught in a property scam in Costa Rica better not expect any help from U.S. Embassy staffers.

An anonymous response from the embassy told any victims of scams that they should contact the Judicial Investigating Organization and then find a lawyer on the embassy’s Web site list.

The response came from Evelyn Ardon, a Costa Rican who is in the press office. She was asked to obtain an official response from embassy higher-ups on what they were doing to help U.S. citizens who have been caught in property frauds.

One of these is Sheldon Haseltine, who has been fighting to keep property on the central Pacific coast for nearly 17 years. He said that one time an embassy staffer visited the courts in Puntarenas to ask about one of many legal cases he has endured. He also gets occasional emails from the same person, a Costa Rican, when he has a favorable or unfavorable court decision.

Other U.S. expats have said the embassy staffers were of no use whatever.

The bulk of the efforts by embassy staffers appear to be in providing weaponry or supplies for Costa Rican police who are seeking drug smugglers. The United States has bankrolled truck inspection installations at the Peñas Blancas boarder crossing and an elaborate facility for police on the Interamericana Sur where officers pull over suspicious vehicles.

The embassy does make brief mention of the property ownership problems in the annual report that is sent to Washington. In a State Department investment report released last June, the section on Costa Rica said “Invasion and occupation of private property by squatters, who are often organized and sometimes violent, occurs in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican police and judicial system have at times failed to deter or to peacefully resolve such invasions. It is not uncommon for squatters to return to the parcels of land from which they have been evicted, requiring expensive and potentially dangerous vigilance over the land.”

And “Potential buyers should retain experienced legal counsel and carefully conduct due diligence to ensure that properties are free of conflicting ownership claims.”

And “. . . there are continuing problems of overlapping title to real property and fraudulent filings with the National Registry, the government entity that records property titles.”

The comments on property were tiny parts of the lengthy report. But the report makes it clear that embassy officials are aware of the problem, although the wording stops short of describing the sophisticated and aggressive methods some land crooks use and the involvement of highly placed Costa Ricans.

The embassy report provided Wednesday only addressed frauds or scams in general and not necessarily those involving real property.

A reader, Harv Brinson of San Ramón, recounted in a letter May 5 how he was “in a state of near total exhaustion after 20 hours of being surrounded in unfriendly territory and managing to prevail in the re-taking of my six hectares in Guanacaste all alone at the age of 70.”

The previous day, Phil Baker, now of yawn051415California, said “Yes, I recovered my property, but during the ordeal the shower drain collected a lot of hair, and I suffered a divorce impacting my daughter and a painful ulcer. Did I mention spending $40,000 in recovery fees, being gouged financially by one attorney, while the next attorney lied to me about his efforts in an attempt to sabotage my case?”

The embassy disinterest is in contrast to what ambassador-designates tell the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee when they are seeking confirmation.

A 2001 edition of A.M. Costa Rica says this: “One of John Danilovich’s priorities as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica will be ensuring the protection of Americans here, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.”

“Ensuring the protection of Americans in Costa Rica will be one of my priorities if I am confirmed,” he told the senators.

What editors did not know at the time is that Danilovich was reading from a script prepared by the State Department. Subsequent ambassador-designates have made the identical promise.

S. Fitzgerald Haney, the current ambassador-designate, probably will use the same script when he appears before the committee.

None of the ambassadors since has distinguished him or herself by pressing Costa Rican officials on the topic of rampant property theft that affects U.S. citizens.

This is how the U.S. Embassy responded:

If an American citizen is victim of fraud and/or scams, the U.S. Embassy advises victims to report this information to the OIJ immediately and file a report.  They should visit the OIJ website to locate the nearest OIJ location near them (https://www.poder-
judicial.go.cr/oij/).  In addition, for informational purposes, victims can report the fraud and/or scam to the Embassy by e-mailing fpusanjose@state.gov.

In some cases, it may be advisable to seek legal counsel.  The Embassy provides a list of attorneys who speak English and have offered to assist U.S. citizens on its website:  http://costarica.usembassy.gov/attorney.html.  Please be advised that the U.S. Embassy assumes no responsibility or liability for the professional ability or reputation of, or the quality of services provided by, the persons or firms listed.

To report an online scam or e-mail hoax, file a complaint online with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at http://www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx.  To report cases of fraud to the FBI, use their online tips form or contact the nearest FBI office or overseas office:  https://tips.fbi.gov/. 

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