Ohio Commercial Law: A pitfall of private lending — a borrower committing fraud

WRITTEN BY: CHRISTOPHER P. FINNEY

We’ve seen to over and over again, individual lenders “conned” by a borrower into making a supposedly secured loan, but in fact the same borrower has “pledged” the same collateral to multiple lenders for duplicate loans.  That means, of course, when it comes time to pay the money back, there is not enough cash to go around to the various lenders and someone is left holding the bag (or everyone is left holding the bag).

This blog entry explains the scam, and tells our readers how to carefully avoid it.

The scam

Here’s how the scam works: The borrower has control of an asset.  It might be a piece of real estate or a business.  Using that asset, he is able to convince the lender of his “bona fides.”

The borrower says: “If I had enough cash, I could complete the improvements on this property, and repay you your money with a good rate of interest.”  Or, “if I had enough money, I could  stock the shelves of this business, sell more inventory, and pay you a good return on your loaned funds.”

Wanting to help the fraudster, or, more likely, motivated by the greed of an above-market rate or return, the lender lends money.

But either trusting the borrower or trying to save money on legal fees and other expenses like an appraisal, the individual lender advances the cash in anticipation of great rewards when the property sells or the inventory turns, but the lender fails to properly document and secure his loan.

Because nothing is recorded in terms of a security interest from the first lender, the borrower then goes to a second, a third and a fourth lender, promising the same high returns, and showing unsecured business assets (real estate, inventory, accounts receivable) as assets to stand behind the obligation.   These subsequent lenders are similarly fooled.

The out-of-town investor

I once had an investor from Chicago.  He was lured in to a scheme whereby his Cincinnati borrower was purchasing single family homes, and supposedly renovating them with the investor’s cash.  For simplicity and to save legal fees, the investor did not get a mortgage against the real estate and did not come to Cincinnati to check on the progress of the improvements.  He simply trusted what the Cincinnati borrower was telling him, and relied upon some phony cell phone photographs of the progress on the improvements.  And he wrote check after check after check to the borrower.

What was really happening was that the local borrower was taking my client’s cash for the purchase and improvement of property, but (a) the borrower was not in fact completing the improvements and (b) he had pledged the proceeds from the same properties to three other lenders.

The result

The result of these scams is entirely predictable: eventually the lenders want to be repaid, usually when the real property sells, the inventory “turns,” or the business is supposed to become profitable.

And each of the multiple lenders wants their cash more or less simultaneously.

Of course, there is no cash to pay these various lenders, or perhaps even one of them.  The lenders are left holding the bag.

Sure, the lenders can try to recover their investment through either litigation or — more likely — bankruptcy court.  But in all likelihood the borrower has no assets and the process will be a big, expensive mess.

A $1.3 billion version of the scam

We were recently reminded of this scam by this article from the Los Angeles Times.  There, a scammer conned “thousands of investors” out of more than $1.3 billion in a more complicated version of the same scam.

One wonders why someone did not ask for proper documentation and a first mortgage position in these supposed real estate investments and why someone did not blow the whistle on this guy earlier.  Of course, folks still are asking the same question about Bernie Madoff

How to avoid being scammed

First, “neither a borrower nor lender be” /1/ is not a bad admonition for individuals with cash to loan.  The lure of high rates of return may not be — likely are not — worth the risk.  Banks are in the business of lending money — and collecting it back.  And they are pretty good at it: Assessing the risk, securing the asset, obtaining guarantors for debt, assuring a proper down payment.  These folks have actuaries who assess the risk of certain kinds of lending and have the experience to avoid pitfalls that amateurs make.

Thus, as a general rule, if a borrower needs to borrow funds, tell him to go to a bank, which can spread the risk among many loans, assess the risks make prudent lending decision, and require appropriate down payments, guarantees, and security.  They also know to check for pre-existing liens and to properly document each loan.  They also don’t tolerate excuses for late payments that private lenders might.  They do this for a living.

But if you feel you must lend privately (or simply elect to do so), here are some pointers:

  • Do your best to prudently assess the risk the best that you are able,
  • Lend only against assets that can secure the repayment of the debt — real estate, jewelry, stocks or a lien on inventory and demand that the borrower post adequate security for the funds borrowed.
  • Think about getting third party guarantees for the funds loaned.
  • Make sure the borrower’s husband or wife are also guaranteeing the debt, as the easiest place to hide assets and income is in the name of the spouse of the borrower.
  • Whether through a real estate title examination or a “UCC lien search” for liens on personal property, ascertain whether there are existing liens that stand before yours.
  • Obtain a first lien position in those assets.  There are different ways under Ohio law to assure that you are in “first position” as to real estate, as to stocks, as to inventory and other personal property and special assets such as cars or jewelry.
  • Purchase a lender’s policy of title insurance for the loan amount.  In fact, make the borrower pay the cost of this insurance.
  • Properly document the loan, the security, and the guarantees.
  • Properly track loan payments and vigorously enforce the note and other lending covenants.

Using these techniques, a private lender can avoid the “multiple lenders” scam, and or at least — among all the others — be properly documented and secured in a first lien position against assets to pay the indebtedness.

Our firm knows each of these methods and can help you implement them properly them.

Conclusion

You have worked hard and invested carefully to accumulate the assets you have.  But others don’t have that same success, that same diligence and that same honesty.  There are millions of fraudsters out there glad to take your cash today on the promise of paying you tomorrow.  And they have neither the intention or the ability to fulfill that promise.

Use a Finney Law Firm transactional attorney — Isaac Heintz (513-943-6654), Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513-797-2853), Rick Turner (513-943-5661), Chris Finney (513-943-6655) or Kevin Hopper (513-943-6650) — to make certain that you are properly secured in for the money you are lending.

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/1/ From the web site “LiteraryDevices.Net“:

This is a line spoken by Polonius in Act-I, Scene-III of William Shakespeare’s playHamlet. The character Polonius counsels his son Laertes before he embarks on his visit to Paris. He says, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; / For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”

It means do not lend or borrow money from a friend, because if you do so, you will lose both your friend and your money. If you lend, he will avoid paying back, and if you borrow you will fall out of your savings, as you turn into a spendthrift, and face humiliation.

It”s amazing this same advice applies more than 400 years after this noted author’s death.

 

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