The number of land scams or frauds and the sale of land using forged deeds have seen an increase in the recent past. Worse, however is the fact that some of the victims of these deals are afraid to come forward and lodge complaints due to intimidation and threats by various persons.
According to the Police complaints of fraudulent sale of lands that amount in the millions are handled by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). The CID did reveal the specific areas where these land scams take place, but said that the incidents have taken place in urban areas close to Colombo, since the value of the land in these areas is significantly higher. Some incidents were reported in Kurunegala and Kandy as well. The CID told the Daily Mirror that they have arrested nearly 35 individuals for engaging in such illegal land sales during the past two years, under directions given by CID DIG Jayantha Kulathilaka.
A large scale land fraud was exposed by the CID during the last week of August. According to this detection, a private company had forwarded and produced forged deeds for a land belonging to the government. An individual had bought a 25 acre land in Alankuda, Kalpitiya for Rs.58 million from the company. When he went to see the land one of the directors of the company had obstructed his visit claiming that the land belonged to their company. The victim had then complained to the CID. The CID conducted investigations and found that the suspected company had forwarded forged deeds and had sold land to foreigners to build hotels in the area. The land consists of 747 acres and it was revealed that six persons had already bought 165 acres out of it and the deed for this transaction signed by the company engaged in the massive fraud was produced in court shortly after the entire racket was busted by the CID.
Another large scale land scam was reported in November last year where four suspects were arrested by the CID for attempting to sell a four acre land in Millennium City, Athurugiriya by producing a forged deed. The deal was worth Rs.35.2 million rupees. The CID arrested the suspects who are residents of Mirigama and Aluthgama in Battaramulla. These suspects planed to sell or buy lands by using forge deeds and forged Identity Cards, the CID said.
In January this year the CID seized a number of land deeds and five identity cards that were found in a safe, at a house in Panadura belonging to a suspect who was embroiled in an Rs.10 million land fraud.
The safe belonging to the suspect, who had operated a money lending company in Wellawatte, had been opened after the receipt of a court order. The suspect had given a loan of Rs.130 million to a resident of Millennium City in Athurugiriya, while keeping a wine store and a reception hall belonging to him in Wariyapola as collateral.
A land in the Nugegoda area owned by the son of a leading lawyer in the country, valued at over Rs.50 Million, was sold by the preparation of forged deeds. The CID assigned several teams to various parts of the country, and especially to the Colombo District, to track down racketeers behind illegal house or land transactions, a senior officer told the Daily Mirror.
The probe comes on a directive from Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa amidst an increasing number of complaints, some of which he had received personally.
The CID will probe cases of persons illegally acquiring houses by use of forged documents, cases of driving out the owners by force, extorting money from owners of houses and cases of selling or mortgaging lands owned by others, the officer said.
The title registration of a land is based on the system that a parcel of land cannot pass and no burden can be enforced, unless it is registered in the land registry. Registered title to land is absolute and it is guaranteed and effectively insured by the state and the state should be ready to compensate for fraud. Certificate of title will replace the deeds. The certificates under the system reflect or mirror accurately and completely the owner of a land.
This means that ownership need not be proved by long complicated documents that are kept by the owner. The previous documents and entries in the land registries become invalid. The process is also referred to as the ‘curtain principle’, as when purchasing or mortgaging land one need not search beyond the certificates of title. Title or name of the owner cannot be defeated in any manner and as such title is referred as the immediate indefeasible title.
Indefeasible title has its problems, as transfer of title is valid regardless of any element of fraud or forgery. The ownership will be vested in the registered owner, the common law principle that ‘once a fraud always a fraud’ does not apply. The fraudsters are at a great advantage.
In criminal law, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual. The specific legal definition varies by legal jurisdiction. Fraud is a crime, and also a civil law violation. Deceiving people or obtaining amounts of money or valuables is a common purpose of fraud, but there are also fraudulent activities to gain prestige rather than immediate monetary gain.
Many individuals who are living abroad and unaware of their lands and properties have been cheated. These lands were registered by using forged deeds, signatures and stamps. The suspects have managed to make fraudulent deals, most often, due to the loop holes in the process that a person needs to follow, when registering a land under his/her name.
As a result foreigners also become victims as racketeers publicise that these lands are sold to expand tourism and development activities in the country. Therefore the CID having received a number of complaints during the recent past began a massive operation to hunt down fraudulent companies and individuals engaged in earning millions of rupees by misleading businessmen, foreigners and sometimes other business entities.
With the implementation of massive development activities in the post conflict period many local and foreign investors buy lands ranging from one acre to sometimes even 500 acres. Therefore the police advise such keen investors to be more cautious when making deals, with parties not recognised or recommended by the government.
“If the particular investor is negotiating with the government or with a reputed institution the deal or the transactions conducted will always be guaranteed. But they have to be very watchful before striking a deal, with groups that are not connected to the government,” the Police said. Furthermore some investors tend to be careless when purchasing lands and this too leads to scammers being given the upper hand. “Some of the victims who bought lands have not even inspected the lands before purchasing them,” the Police said.
Organised gangs are also involved in these land scams. Underworld figures such as ‘Pas Chooty’ and ‘Chooty Putha’ were involved in illegally filling marshy lands with soil and then selling them at undervalued prices. These organised groups keep a close watch on the properties they intend on obtaining, when they discover that the owners of the houses or lands have been abroad for a long time or are too old to manage the property, they take steps to obtain the land, by fraudulent means, and hastily sell the land at undervalued prices.
“When it is advertised that a land is for sale at half the price of its actual value, people fall prey. The racketeers tend to sell property illegally where these lands are located in highly residential areas. People always look for a convenient place which is close to their work place, to school and also to the nearby town and this leads them to making hasty decisions,” the police stated.
The CID is presently probing most complaints that were handed over to the department during the time of former Police Chief Mahinda Balasuriya as most of them were lodged at police stations and were not examined properly.
Throughout the years the CID has proven its commitment and has shown results in tracking down individuals and businesses that have been misleading the public and earning millions of rupees.
The failure of the police stations in the area, to probe such investigations encouraged the victims to go to the CID. The public can inform and provide information to the CID of such frauds by contacting the following numbers 0112320141-4 and 0112422176. The public can also lodge complaints with the commercial branch of the department. (Supun Dias)