Real estate attorney Lauren Griffin said UCC liens ‘are a new kind of fraud that we haven’t seen before.’
NEW ORLEANS — David Bryan and his wife Annemarie Ellgaard both grew up in New Orleans, met at Tulane University and sent their daughter to their alma mater. A quarter century after moving away to Minneapolis, they bought their forever home Uptown and decided to retire back in the Crescent City.
But their dream was nearly derailed this spring, by something that looked like typical junk mail. Bryan almost threw away a letter from a California lender called GoodLeap, thinking it was solicitation for a home equity loan. It turned out to be a statement for a $45,000 loan taken out in his name, without his knowledge, to cover new doors and windows that he never ordered and were never installed.
“GoodLeap paid the construction company directly,” Bryan said. “They didn’t have any proof that the work was done or anything. They just took their word for it that the work was done, paid them directly the $45,000… If it didn’t happen to me, I’d sit back and think, boy, this is ingenious.”
WWL Louisiana has learned that GoodLeap accepted more than three dozen loan applications with New Orleans property owners’ real names and addresses, but automated signatures and fake Social Security and telephone numbers. Law enforcement sources confirm that GoodLeap paid loans for about 20 of those applications directly to Metairie contractor Deep South Renovations, based on automatic signatures from Deep South’s owner, Samantha McGee.
GoodLeap says it’s a victim of fraud and is working with the FBI field office in Sacramento, Calif. But property owners say GoodLeap failed to perform basic due diligence to confirm their personal information before releasing the money to Deep South and slapping a UCC lien on their properties – liens that prevented some of them from taking out legitimate loans or selling their houses.
“To protect consumers and GoodLeap itself, GoodLeap has an extensive due diligence and fraud prevention process,” said Jesse Comart, GoodLeap’s executive vice president for communications. “GoodLeap is also a victim of this fraud. And we certainly regret that these innocent consumers were also swept up in this fraud.”
Stealing Social Security numbers
Comart said GoodLeap was victimized by “a highly sophisticated group that appears to have the ability to create or obtain fraudulent (Social Security Numbers), and then associate the SSNs with innocent property owners.”
GoodLeap has canceled 20 UCC liens in New Orleans alone since August. Comart said the lender has canceled all loans it identified as fraudulent but declined to say how many were specifically associated with Deep South and how much McGee’s company received, citing the pending FBI investigation.
But it appears Deep South used more than one lender to collect bogus home-improvement loan proceeds. Quentella Livers found out Deep South collected $45,000 on a loan from GoodLeap to put solar panels on her house, using a fake application using her maiden name, Richard. Not only did she not get any solar panels, but she also discovered a second UCC lien for new floors and other home improvement work she didn’t get. She said she then found out another California lender, Dividend Solar Finance, had paid Deep South $54,000 for that bogus loan.
She managed to get GoodLeap to cancel its lien in August. Dividend just canceled its lien last week.
“It’s taken a lot out of me. It’s been a whirlwind,” she said.
Real estate fraud has been on the rise this year, with scammers using automated signatures to falsify deeds in attempts to sell properties out from under the rightful owners. But real estate attorney Lauren Griffin said UCC liens “are a new kind of fraud that we haven’t seen before.”
Griffin, a lawyer at New Orleans based Crescent Title, said she got a call this summer from a client about a GoodLeap lien that he didn’t even know about until another victim called to warn him.
“Fraudsters are trying anything they can right now,” she said.
Loans taken out in the victims’ names
The first warning came from a Gentilly property owner, who researched the Orleans Parish property records, then spoke to eight others who all said GoodLeap had placed UCC liens on their properties and paid Deep South Renovations $45,000 for work at their houses that was never done.
Livers said if it hadn’t been for the Gentilly man writing her a letter to warn her, she might not have known about the $45,000 GoodLeap loan or the $54,000 Dividend loan in her name.
“I figured that I couldn’t possibly be the only victim,” said the Gentilly man, who didn’t want to give his name because he filed a police report against McGee and said he’s concerned for his safety. “It’s really galling that somebody can get away with this so easily.”
Bryan, Livers and the Gentilly man say they have been interviewed by FBI agents about McGee. The FBI’s Sacramento field office said it could not confirm or deny an investigation. But the New Orleans Police Department confirmed its White Collar Crimes Unit is investigating.
Deep South appears to have walked away with close to a million dollars in bogus loans, even though its state contractor’s license has been revoked and its office in Metairie is a vacant storefront. McGee is also facing financial default in multiple court cases.
In one of them, a Jefferson Parish judge ordered McGee to pay Louisiana Pain Specialists more than $400,000 on a debt that’s been in default for more than two years. Court records show she failed to show up for a garnishment hearing last month and the judge issued an attachment for her arrest.
Also this summer, she was renting a townhouse in Metairie and entered a bond for deed agreement to purchase the home over time. The seller, Ronald Lopiparo, said she only paid half of the $100,000 down payment and hasn’t made any of the monthly purchase payments since. He issued a default notice last week and says he plans to evict her.
The U.S. Marshals Service confirmed agents went to the townhouse in tactical gear in April 2022. Brian Fair, a U.S. Marshals spokesman, said McGee was arrested for failing to show up in federal court on a separate matter.
Neighbors saw McGee pull up in her late-model Mercedes earlier this week and WWL Louisiana went to knock on her door shortly after she entered the house, but she wouldn’t answer the door. She hasn’t answered any phone calls or text messages over the last few weeks, either.
How to protect yourself
Griffin says property owners can do a few things to protect themselves against fraudulent UCC liens. They can freeze their credit. They can also sign up for notifications whenever a new document is filed in the land records. That service is available through the Jefferson and St. Tammany parish clerks offices, but not yet in Orleans or St. Bernard parishes.
Orleans Parish Chief Deputy Clerk Alexandria Irvin said Orleans is in the “testing stages of our Land Records courtesy real estate notification service with an anticipated launch date January 2024.” She said property owners will have to register an email address to receive the alerts.