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Started by Unbeliever, November 18, 2006, 11:40:45 am
QuoteBeyond Profanity, Dirty Dealing Swindlers Take God's Name in VainBy CHRIS HEDGESHe has many names. He has multiple business addresses and companies. The authorities say he preys on the weak, those with poor credit ratings, the elderly on fixed incomes and immigrants whose command of English and the country's dizzying laws is minimal. He is seemingly friendly, helpful, even charming. And law enforcement officials consider him one of New York's leading con artists. Despite an arrest warrant and the conviction of his corporation on felony charges on Long Island, he has deftly slipped through the net. He is believed to have fled to his native Cyprus several weeks before he was indicted last year. But his whereabouts are unknown and he may still be taking part, perhaps not far away, in the swindles that have made him rich.It is hard to know what to call him. City officials concede that they do not know his name, although the complaint by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs that charges him with defrauding New York homeowners of more than $6 million lists him as "Ioannis Ioannou, a k a John Ioannou." And he has other names, maybe a dozen. The ones on the list, they suspect, are outdated."Who knows what he calls himself now," said Susan Kassapian, the general counsel for Consumer Affairs. "These kinds of people are not only unscrupulous but heartless. They search out victims such as the elderly or the gullible. They egg people on to falsify financial information to get the loans. And then they take off with most of the money. The sad thing is that these con artists are mostly successful. Very few ever go to jail." In this universe of wily predators, dishonesty and deception are the tools used to make money. Breaking the commandment not to take the name of the Lord thy God in vain -- or, simply, perjuring oneself -- is a way of life, part of doing business. This commandment was more than likely not an injunction against profanity, as is popularly believed by many. According to Scripture, in explaining this commandment, Jesus teaches that someone's personal word should be as strong an obligation as any oath.Consumer Affairs and Nassau County's Office of the District Attorney, which prosecuted his case, agree. If they are the protectors of one's good word, then Mr. Ioannou is one of their most wanted offenders."Men like him are professionals," said Gretchen Dykstra, the commissioner for the Department of Consumer Affairs. "Anyone, even those of us in this field, could get scammed by them. They know the laws, the system, the bureaucracy, and they know how to make it work. They usually set up shop, steal money and then declare bankruptcy and disappear after two years when the complaints start to pour in."Mr. Ioannou's particular scheme is played like this, the authorities say: He runs radio commercials, hands out fliers or takes out advertisements in papers that promise homeowners up to $100,000 in loans for home improvements, "no matter if you are considered to be a low-, middle- or high-income family," as one newspaper ad read. Once he hooked a client, Mr. Ioannou insisted the client use contractors that work for companies he controlled -- although the client was never told Mr. Ioannou also owned the contracting companies.Consumer Affairs found that Mr. Ioannou was president of several companies, including Homer General Contracting, Rehab Industries and Homer Funding Limited. The companies used the same checks, telephones and office space. The companies listed three business addresses, but they were part of one big scheme, investigators said.Without telling his clients, Mr. Ioannou then went to outside lenders to obtain their loans."He falsified documents in the loan application files to make it appear these homeowners had better credit than they did, a higher income than they did and that properties did not have a mortgage when in fact they did," said Peter Mancuso, the assistant district attorney for Nassau County who investigated and prosecuted the case. "He falsified appraisals so it appeared homes were worth more. He made it appear properties were getting rentals when they were not. And he did all this without notifying the homeowners." The falsification of documents, the numerous front companies and the aliases not only broke the commandment against lying, but spun a tangled and complicated web that allowed Mr. Ioannou to evade detection and accountability, the authorities said. And, like many deceits, this one had tragic consequences.One of Mr. Ioannou's clients, Thomas A. Capers, 47, who lives on East 169th Street in the Bronx, had two loans, one for $30,000 and another for $40,000, for supposed renovations. The Nassau County district attorney was able to invalidate the $40,000 loan, but Mr. Capers still has to pay off the $30,000 loan to an Ohio-based lending company. The company has charged Mr. Capers about $10,000 in "legal fees" regarding his loan, he said. He now pays $250 a month to repair damage caused by the shoddy workmanship, $2,200 a month interest on his inflated mortgage and $300 a month for an excessive utility bill because of faulty wiring caused when the workers scrambled the wires. His house, he said, is a mess. The toaster can blow the lights out, the plumbing is frequently backed up and the pipes they installed leak down the sides of wall, leaving streaks of brown."We feel humiliated," said Mr. Capers, who is married and has three daughters. "Our house is the biggest investment we made in our lives. We have borrowed money, emptied our savings account and used nearly all the money we had in our retirement plan to pay the monthly charges. But soon we won't have enough. I just got laid off from the Department of Education. We have no other place to live. We put everything we had into our home. It was our whole life, and because of these crooks, we may lose it."Mr. Ioannou's home improvement contracting license was revoked in the city and on Long Island, a move that did not stop him from using his contracting companies to turn huge profits from breaking the commandment. Mr. Ioannou was ordered in absentia to pay more than $6 million in restitution last year after his company was found guilty in Nassau County Court for stealing money from more than 150 people there and in New York City.Consumer Affairs ordered Rehab Industries to pay more than $260,000 in restitution. Homer General Contracting was ordered to pay $170,000 in cases dating to 1997.The Department of Consumer Affairs said Mr. Ioannou, like many professional liars, has the impeccable timing of knowing exactly when to pack up, shut down his businesses, take out all his cash and leave town. "They migrate somewhere else and begin all over again," Ms. Kassapian said. "We can rarely catch them. They are faster than we are. Ioannou is one of the two worst cases I have seen in the past decade. He is free. The con man in the other big case never went to jail and is on probation. It is frustrating."Shirley King, 60, a home health aide who lives in Jamaica, Queens, called the number printed in one of Mr. Ioannou's newspaper ads. She let the "polite men" who visited her home from the company sweet-talk her into signing papers she wishes now she had never signed."The guy who came to our home was so nice," she said. "He wore a suit. He seemed like a kind, older man. He told me he could give me a home improvement loan that would only cost me $125 a month. He told me he would consolidate my credit card debt, although he never did. He gave me papers to sign. He said it was a contract, but it was not a contract. I am from the Virgin Islands. I did not understand how these things work."After she took out a second mortgage for $34,000, which she said she never understood she was actually taking out, she said she saw $22,000 added to her first mortgage, after her kitchen and bathroom were ripped apart. "My nightmare began," she said. The kitchen and bathroom were repaired with shoddy materials, far inferior to what was there before, she said. The materials, according to the city's building inspector, were worth less than $10,000. She had paid $56,000 for the work. She now has to pay $350 a month on a salary of $26,000 a year or risk losing her home. Her kitchen and bathroom, she said, "are a wreck.""My life is a mess because of this," she said. "I have to come up with all this extra money every month. I don't trust anyone anymore. I used to trust everyone, but now I don't. I am not who I was. All I do is work overtime to try and pay it off." Ashamed of their inability to see through the lies, many of those who fell for the scheme do not report the theft. "A lot of people feel foolish," said Max Verga, the director of Consumer Affairs' Complaints Division. "They feel guilty and responsible. They are reluctant to contact us. They think in some way it is their fault."
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