Singaporeans lose thousands after US property scheme turns sour
Almost all his savings were wiped out.
This included money for his family, two schoolgoing children and holiday plans.
Mr Kenneth Ng, 43, never imagined himself to be a real estate investor, but after listening to a speaker at a property seminar, he invested almost all of his $80,000 savings.
The supply chain executive, who earns $8,000 a month, bought a "fixer-upper" in the US city of Memphis for US$55,000 (S$74,500).
A fixer-upper is real estate slang for a property that needs maintenance work, such as redecoration, reconstruction or redesign, before it can be lived in.
That was in 2013.
Mr Ng never got the promised returns.
The property guru who made the sales pitch? She stopped taking calls and answering e-mails. (See report below.)
Then out of the blue, Mr Ng received letters from lawyers in the US telling him to pay up or the property would face foreclosure.
Mr Ng, who has never been to the US, sent two cheques of US$4,000 and US$5,000 to keep the bank at bay.
He is not the only one to put their trust in the US property scheme - others had invested in houses in Indianapolis.
One investor bought two properties - the first in Memphis, the other in Indianapolis - through the same scheme. She even made a video 10 months ago, praising the scheme and the woman behind it.
STUCK IN LAWYER'S OFFICE
Now, the same investor is singing a different tune, saying that her cheques to the banks to stop the foreclosure of her homes are currently stuck at a US lawyer's office.
And the promised returns? She said she only received one month's worth of rent from the Memphis property. The investor, who spoke to The New Paper on Sunday, declined to be identified and is holding out for money to be returned.
A group of these investors contacted TNPS to tell their story. Some are civil servants. A couple are in between jobs, but most have regular jobs.
All of them have put their trust in a woman who allegedly told them she would handle everything, from the loans to legal letters.
There was nothing for the investors to do other than to wait for their money to grow at returns of between 14.5 and 22.3 per cent.
They were told they would own the properties, which would be repaired before being rented out within three to six months. And when values go up, they would be flipped.
It was just too easy.
Mr Ng said: "I'm not familiar with the US property market - none of the investors are. But the presentation by CTL Property was good and its founder Clara Tan was very convincing,"
He met her at real estate seminars held at Marina Bay Sands, first in December 2012 and again in February 2013.
"What drew many of us in was, CTL is a one-stop shop, offering full services from tax submissions, tax filing, getting legal representations and so forth," he said.
He said like him, the other investors even signed over their power of attorney - that meant legally, she could decide for them.
"I'm not a detailed person, so when CTL said it will hold all the documents, I didn't demand a copy of the contracts for myself," Mr Ng said.
That was the start of a massive headache.
How the scheme worked
CTL Group and its founder and director, Ms Clara Tan, were hot in the property scene between 2008 and 2012.
Her seminars on topics such as maximising rental yield, spotting prime property below market value, need-to-know tips for foreign markets and the power of leverage saw robust turnouts, and were sometimes over-subscribed.
Believing in her business model, several Singaporeans invested their hard-earned savings in her projects in Memphis and Indianapolis, where she said she "flipped" properties.
When the US housing bubble burst and the 2008 banking crisis followed, owners in many US cities, including Memphis and Indianapolis, were badly hit.
Many simply abandoned the properties they could no longer make payments for. The Singaporean investors bought over these houses.
Their money was supposed to be used to repair dozens of homes in some of the most down-and-out neighbourhoods of the two cities.
The investors paid in full and the cost was supposed to cover all renovations.
There were not supposed to be bank loans.
They also owned the US properties but to minimise work on their part, they signed the power of attorney over to Ms Tan's company for CTL to manage the properties.
But only one of the 12 investors TNPS met received a title deed. The rest never got their documents because they were told the documents would all be posted online on the company's website.
It never happened.
In Indianapolis, Ms Tan's company popped up in county land sales records of 2013 as the buyer of at least 18 low-priced homes in Center Township.
These purchases stood out, because at least eight were sold by non-profit group New Day Residential.
In May 2013, the president of New Day Residential was among five people charged in a kickback and bribery scandal involving vacant homes sold by the city-run Indy Land Bank.
One John Hawkins pleaded guilty to wire fraud in an alleged scheme to reap kickbacks from the sale of abandoned properties last June.
On Sept 2013, The Indianapolis Star reported that CTL Global Holdings had already resold some of its Indianapolis properties "at prices sharply higher than it paid for them to buyers with Asian names".
For instance, records in 2013 showed two side-by-side houses bought by CTL were sold by the Land Bank to New Day for US$2,500 (S$3,390) in March.
They were resold that same month to CTL for US$10,000 and in April, CTL "flipped" the houses for US$38,334 each to the current owners.
Both homes remain unrenovated.
How their troubles started
"The first sign of trouble was six months after, when the property management company engaged by CTL started communicating directly with us, the investors," said Mr Kenneth Ng.
The property management company in question is in the US.
Mr Ng's troubles were echoed by many other investors and The New Paper on Sunday met with seven of them on Jan 24.
A 60-year-old investor told TNPS on Friday that he bought two properties in Indianapolis and paid in full, spending about $100,000 in all.
"I was given the two title deeds but in the US, the homes were not really under my name - it was under CTL Global Holdings LLC," he said.
The purchases were finalised in July 2013 and he was receiving rental payment from one of the properties until September last year.
The investors were supposed to receive rental income, ranging from US$400 to US$600 (S$540 to S$810), three to six months after they became owners of the houses. The delay was to ensure renovations to the houses were completed and tenants secured.
But after six months, the seven investors claimed they had received no returns from the rentals.
Instead, US banks sent them letters for mortgages unpaid and warned of foreclosing the properties.
"The last we heard was that 12 properties owned by Singaporeans have been foreclosed and six are waiting for foreclosure," said another investor, a civil servant who wanted to be known only as Ms Tan.
"With 12 properties foreclosed and each costing about US$50,000, our losses amount to US$600,000," she added.
The last we heard was that 12 properties owned by Singaporeans have been foreclosed and six are waiting for foreclosure.
- An investor, a civil servant who wanted to be known only as Ms Tan
The woman behind the case
IS SHE IN THE STATES? Ms Clara Tan claimed she was held by US authorities, but was she telling the truth? Photo: INTERNET
At first, the investors claimed, Ms Clara Tan called them regularly to update them.
But around mid-2014, the calls slowed down and eventually died.
The investors grew worried when US banks wrote to them, telling them to make good the mortgage payment or their properties might face foreclosure.
The investors then wrote to Ms Tan repeatedly. They also called and even visited her Pemimpin Drive office and home address, a condominium at Upper Thomson Road.
She could not be reached.
One investor, however, managed to get her on Skype sometime in November and she claimed she was being detained in Indianapolis by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and her passport had been impounded.
Some investors decided to group together to find some way to get themselves out of trouble.
They made separate police reports on Jan 17 and 18,and reported to the Council for Estate Agencies on Jan 29. Police confirmed the reports had been lodged and would only say that they were looking into the matter.
TNPS also contacted FBI Special Agent and Media Representative (Indianapolis) Wendy Osborne.
Are they looking into land purchases by CTL Global and is it linked to a land bank scandal?
Is the FBI or another law-enforcement agency holding Ms Tan?
Ms Osborne would only say that the FBI does not confirm or deny investigations.
Often, when a Singaporean is in trouble overseas, a relative might contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for assistance.
But an MFA spokesman says the ministry has not been approached for assistance.
The New Paper on Sunday team visited the CTL Global office at One Pemimpin twice, and the door was locked on both occasions.
Calls to the numbers listed on the website also went unanswered.
A check with neighbouring offices found that no one had been seen going in or coming out of the unit since three months ago.
Twice, the team visited her condominium, but nobody answered the door even though Chinese New Year decorations were up.
An e-mail sent to Ms Tan also went unanswered.
But TNPS understands that Tan and CTL Global are not only foraying into Cambodia, but have also conducted webinars (seminars via the Web) since Jan 8 to attract investors from the country.