Property scam cases have their human costs, too

News stories about property thefts and similar scams that steal from expats and would-be expats usually feature the economic loss.

Not as often do news stories address the physical, psychological and emotional impact. Of course when one writes about the 17-year struggle of someone like Sheldon Hazeltine, the personal impacts are assumed. He has been in and out of court more times than a lot of judges.

But how about the average U.S. property buyer who comes to Costa Rica full of trust and the desire to find a home for eventual retirement. Larry Meholick, now in Naples, Florida, is one such individual. He wrote Thursday describing his long battle over real estate.

He said that in 2004 he and his now ex-wife purchased a retirement condo in construction at Flamingo and made payments representing 98 percent of the purchase price. He said they furnished it and put the condo up for rent until retirement. The payment was $272,473.

“But one month later, we heard a rumor our condo was being auctioned because the developers did not pay any of our money to the bank after they represented having clear title,” he wrote. “No warning, only assurances the project was solvent.”

“Our earth dropped from beneath our feet,” he continued. “After working nearly a combined 100 years saving for the home and fulfilling all contractual obligations, we have lived a nightmare since: divorce, broken lives, major health issues, my ex-wife’s bankruptcy, my unending crushing condo loan debts, our life savings and children’s inheritance – gone.

“I will be 68 soon, I have nothing left to lose. I am a retired police officer, never gave up seeking justice for a victim in my career and was particularly diligent bringing justice to victims from other cultures preyed upon by those in positions of trust . . . ”

Meholick now is in the courts seeking damages from the developer and his associates. There may well be innocent explanations for what happened, which the court will determine. But he is not alone.

Many of the persons who dealt with Paragon Properties of Costa Rica, S.A. ended up  losing their money. The company sold vacant lots with a sophisticated boiler room operation in Florida that offered free trips to Costa Rica. Some claim the operation started out as a ponzi scheme, and others, including the former management, said the rapidly expanding operation was blindsided by the economic downturn.

In any event perhaps as many as 900 couples lost their money and dreams of a life in Costa Rica. Some who have valid corporations that own a lot still are hanging on. Most U.S. legal efforts were not successful.

There is a long list of similar problem properties mostly on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Meholick makes the point that has been echoed over and over by those in similar circumstances: No one would help.

He said he got no help from staffers at the U.S. Embassy, the Colegio de Abogados, the lawyers professional association, or from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. He said he was told that he did not lose enough to launch an investigation.

Others have made the same comments about the lack of embassy response. Each time an ambassador designate appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he or she reads from a prepared text and promises to look out for U.S. citizens here.

That does not seem to be the case with property fraud and disputes. Embassy staffers lavish all sorts of police equipment on the Costa Rican government. For example, Thursday the U.S. gave $220,000 in tools to the Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea to fight crime from the skies.

Wednesday one of the many subsecretaries of the U.S. Department of State was in town to help Costa Rica become a member of another international organization, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The visitors met with the foreign minister, Manuel A. González, and the commerce minister, Alexander Mora.  That would seem to have been a good time to mention the many U.S. investors and would-be retirees who have had property problems or who have been defrauded here. And the State Department bigwigs could have made some suggestions.

But there is no indication that the topic came up.family050115

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