SF man accused of stealing 3 luxury condos

February 24, 2010 9:59:29 AM PST
A San Francisco man accused of illegally transferring ownership of three condos to himself is being held on more than $7 million bail.

It's a crime authorities say is sophisticated in its execution, yet simple in the ease it was carried out. At stake are millions of dollars in real estate on one of San Francisco's most exclusive properties.

One Rincon Hill is one of the newest additions to San Francisco's skyline and where a penthouse lists for $14 million.

It's also where a man already facing trial in a separate burglary now stands accused of stealing three condos from a real estate executive, Shirley Hwang. Winston Lum faces 16 felony counts of forgery, grand theft and identity theft.

Court documents obtained by 7 On Your Side show 45-year-old is suspected of forging the owner's name onto the deeds of three of her condos, then granting to himself those properties.

Defense attorney Tal Klement tells 7 On Your Side prosecutors have compiled 3,000 pages of documents in their case against his client.

"I know from the limited conversation with Mr. Lum this is more complicated and there's a bigger story. At this point, it's too early to just assume that he is guilty of these charges based on the allegations alone," he said.

SFPD won't talk specifically about this case, but say it's a type of crime they're seeing more.

"We've gotten quite a few in the last few years and like I said it's a relatively new crime," Lt. Jones Wong said. "I think the criminals have just gotten more sophisticated."

Lieutenant Wong says if the documents are notarized, it's unlikely the forgery will be discovered when filed at the Recorder's Office.

San Francisco County recorder Phil Ting agrees.

"Every county recorder's office, there's only very limited reasons why we can turn down a document. So for example, when you record a document, we don't determine whether a document is legal or not," he said.

For the victim, this is a case of identity theft that could take years to unwind.

"It's terrible. These poor victims have to go through a lot to show they are an innocent victim," Lt Jones Wong from SFPD said.

One of the best things you can do to protect yourself is to guard your privacy.

"People have to be very cognizant about who they're giving information to. You can only forge a deed if you know the owner, the name, the property, all that. Information which is not public record," Ting said.

Hwang has sued Lum and his lender, DeWitt Mortgage to try to get her properties back and to get the liens removed from them. Compounding matters, Hwang must also fight a transfer tax bill of $50,000.