Justice chief moves to protect OFWs from housing scams

Justice chief moves to protect OFWs from housing scams
By Leila Salaverria
Last updated 10:26pm (Mla time) 07/08/2007

MANILA — Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are falling prey not only to Internet-based Ponzi investment schemes but also to housing scams.


Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez has begun looking into alleged housing scams in which people were duped into buying townhouses or condo units that have remained unfinished. Gonzalez’s efforts are in line with the government’s drive to help overseas Filipinos avoid spending hard-earned money in houses that would never materialize.


On Wednesday, the National Bureau of Investigation arrested an alleged top official of a group that operates “Francswiss” online, a pyramiding scheme believed to have duped investors in the country of P1 billion.


No housing developer or seller has been reported being arrested in connection with housing deals that went sour.


Gonzalez said he would schedule a meeting this week with Vice President Noli de Castro and Commissioner Romulo Fabul of the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) to discuss what could be done to stop the scams and to help people tricked into entering into questionable housing transactions.


De Castro, who Gonzalez said had signified his intention to be involved in the issue, is chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC).


“There are thousands of people who are victims of scams in subdivisions,” Gonzalez told reporters in a recent interview. “Many have to be protected from it and many don’t understand it, don’t even know it.”


The justice secretary said he was thinking of seeking the President’s help by asking her to issue an executive order to define the parameters of the HLURB’s powers and help resolve the problem.


Gonzalez said he was particularly concerned about overseas Filipinos losing the money for which they toiled for many years.


“Our main concern in this matter is that innocent Filipino workers, many of whom have labored abroad in the hope of purchasing a decent living area, end up losing their shirt to unscrupulous subdivision or condominium developers who entice buyers by doing initial work on real estate projects, put up props to convey a sense of urgency, then suddenly stop the construction without giving any reason, and nobody is around to answer your queries,” he said in his June 29 letter to Fabul inviting the latter to a meeting.


The usual excuse that the sellers give is that the Securities and Exchange Commission has halted the housing project because the company is bankrupt or under rehabilitation, according to Gonzalez.


He noted that the problem arose from the pre-selling of real estate, condo units or townhouses that remained unfinished even after several years.


He said the buyers were often not fairly refunded their money when the construction did not push through.


Asked if he thought there was a syndicate running the scheme, he said there could be. But he added that even reputable developers may have been involved in such situations.


He pointed out that there were questions about the jurisdiction of the cases.


Many cases have been referred to the justice department, and estafa or swindling charges have been filed, but it appears that the final jurisdiction rests with the HLURB, according to Gonzalez.


Although some say that the cases should be with the HLURB, the board does not have punitive powers and can only order the seller or developer to return the money, the justice secretary said.


“What will happen should the seller fail to do so?” he asked.


“Please note that the poor buyers have nowhere to go to ventilate their complaints because of the jurisdiction issue. It is for this reason that we are inviting you for a conference so that we can resolve these problems, which clearly prejudice buyers,” Gonzalez told Fabul in his letter.


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