Barrister, solicitors arrested in alleged $62m URA flats scam

Money glitz | Leung Pak-hei 3 Sep 2021

A barrister, his wife and two solicitors were among 12 people arrested for conspiracy to defraud the Urban Renewal Authority of HK$62.7 million in a property scam in which they claimed to be owners of repossessed flats earmarked for redevelopment.

Barrister Devin Sio Chan-in, 36, is alleged to be the mastermind of the syndicate, which stole at least eight flats across Hong Kong, including one in To Kwa Wan, with fake identities before applying for loans and selling the flats, earning a total of HK$62.7 million.

Eight men and four women, aged 30 to 64, including the barrister, two solicitors and a legal executive, were arrested for conspiracy to defraud on Wednesday, the police said yesterday.

Sources named Sio and the two solicitors as Wai Pui-shuen and Flora Lam Yan-fong.

The other suspects, who have not been named, include a paralegal clerk, five staff from a financial company and property agents.

At a press conference yesterday, Chief Inspector Chan Yat-wai from the Commercial Crime Bureau said the scam came to light when an "owner" of a flat on Wing Kwong Street in To Kwa Wan marked for redevelopment suddenly approached the authority for compensation. The owner was supposed to have died 21 years ago.

The authority had been trying to contact the owner since 2018, but failed, Chan said.

However, it received a call from the syndicate who claimed to be commissioned by a new owner of the flat to discuss selling the apartment in September last year.

But the authority subsequently found the flat's original owner had passed away in 1999, 21 years before the flat was sold to a new owner. Suspecting the transaction was fraudulent, the authority reported the incident to the police late last year.

Chan said investigation found the syndicate had committed fraud over seven other vacant flats, which were 44 to 84 years old, between May last year and April this year, including five whose owners had been dead for about 10 years. Sources said some of the victims had migrated.

Chan said the group targeted old and empty properties in To Kwa Wan, North Point and other places on Hong Kong Island.

She said the syndicate used fake ID cards to law firms to claim they had lost their flat deeds and used the re-issued deeds to apply for loans ranging from HK$1 million to HK$9.5 million, or even selling them to home buyers without the consent of the original owners.

"They colluded with lawyers from a law firm and staff from a financial company to produce a statutory declaration of lost title deeds using fake identities before applying for loans or selling the properties through their own networks," she said.

Chan said the syndicate sent people disguised as the original owners to negotiate with home buyers and lie to them that the property had been foreclosed and were available for mortgage applications.

Once the new buyers paid for their homes, the law firm would use the sum to repay loans at financial companies and absorb the remaining balance as profits for the syndicate.

Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung said property owners could claim losses from the suspects, but it would be hard for them to recover all their losses because the criminals would usually transfer the money away.

As for the new buyers, Luk said they could continue to live in the flats as they purchased them through legal means.

The arrested barrister, Sio, was born in Macau and was the vice-president of the Young DAB - a youth branch of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. He ran in the 2015 District Council election but lost, after which he withdrew from the party.

During the social unrest in 2019, Sio founded a 100-member voluntary lawyer group to provide legal assistance to pro-establishment citizens injured by protesters.

It is understood that Sio's wife was also arrested and one of the stolen properties has been transferred to her name.

Solicitor Wai had taken part in the 2011 Central and Western District Council election but was defeated. She opened her first law firm at the age of 28, but the firm was taken to court in 2017 over unpaid rent.

The president of Law Society, Chan Chak-ming, declined to comment on individual cases. But he said all professional misconduct will be investigated and dealt with in accordance with the Law Society's procedures.

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