These alleged Costa Rican con men may have picked the wrong foreigner this time.
U.S citizen Robert Sprague, a former senior analyst with Southern Command, said notaries and lawyers stole a 12,000-squaremeter property in Escazú out from under him while he was out of the country. But the expat is not going down without a fight against what is commonly known as registry fraud – the practice of using forged signatures and corrupt notaries to illegally transfer property listed at the National Registry.
“I tend to make a big stink,” said the former military man, who has owned the property since 1982.
“This is a garbage can full of garbage and when it tips over, it’s going to stink to high heavens. This stinks of corruption. I already screamed at the U.S. Embassy and I think I finally got their attention.”
Sprague filed criminal and civil complaints against one of the alleged con artists, a lawyer with the last name Masís on Tuesday. On the same day, he also filed a complaint with the Costa Rican Attorneys’ Association to get Masís disbarred.
Along with Masís, another name appears on the National Registry for the allegedly purloined property – German Torres Salazar.
Sprague said he knows neither man, but, according to his complaint, they forged his signature on at least two documents to create a fraudulent power of attorney for a corporation he created in 1997 with the hope of better protecting the property.
Adding muscle, the retired military analyst has hired Edwin Phillips, a retired criminal judge who served 32 years, as his attorney.
“It’s an atrocity what the system has perpetrated against Sprague,” Phillips said.
“From one morning to the next, he was deprived of $400,000 worth of property.”
Prosecutor Wendy Montero, whose fraud office is handling the case, said property theft through the National Registry is a huge problem in Costa Rica. She said three of her office’s 16 prosecutors work only on registry fraud and each of them currently has an average of 200 cases.
“It’s a very easy scam to run and even more so with foreigners who are often out of the country and unable to understand Spanish,” said the prosecutor, whose office receives about 10 registry fraud complaints a month. “The cases can take from one to five years to resolve and the more complicated cases involve corrupt judges, con men who falsify judge’s signatures and corrupt National Registry employees.”
Montero said registry fraud actually consists of three crimes – falsifying documents, using false documents and fraud, which can together result in up to 22 years in prison.
“But judges never give maximum sentences,” she said.
She said part of the problem is that notaries are treated like gods and when they are caught, the punishments are not strong. They normally consist of temporary suspensions.
“The problem with the notaries is terrible,” she said. “There have been notaries who have run the same scams more than once and yet nobody questions them.”
Sprague said he was willing to fight a drawnout battle for justice.
“I had hoped that the judge who had essentially ‘given’ my property to this bunch of thieves would have nullified this perversion of justice based upon our request to him,” he said. “This activity is a clear and present threat to all decent realtors and potential buyers of land in Costa Rica, especially foreigners, and if allowed to be successful, will destroy a great deal of faith and good will that has been created over the years.We feel violated and betrayed by a system that caused us to not only lose our property, but to destroy our faith in a country that we believed was far ahead of the rest of Central America.”
Wendy Montero, an attorney in the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, recommends property owners check their land at the National Registry on a monthly basis to avoid being victimized by registry scammers.
Also, with their property number, known in Spanish as a folio real, property owners can check their titles free of charge at this Web site, www.registronacional.go.cr.