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Bogus Elvis quits Vegas with piles of tenants' cash

Fraudulent rental agent illegally lets more than 70 foreclosed Las Vegas homes in a scam worth US$300,000 a month
Authorities believe property scams are increasing throughout the United States.
Authorities believe property scams are increasing throughout the United States.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA // It is typical of the kind of property scams happening across the United States, currently facing one of the worst mortgage crises in history. But this case has a special Las Vegas twist.

Nevada police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are on the hunt for an Elvis impersonator who also poses as a lettings agent. Elvis Nargi, who sports lamb-chop sideburns, white track suits and a hefty collection of gold chains, allegedly broke into dozens of foreclosed homes in the Las Vegas area. He then changed the locks, and rented them out to unsuspecting customers. Nargi operated from a respectable-looking office called American Executive Realty set in a Las Vegas shopping mall.

Authorities know he rented out at least 70 properties - and believe there may be hundreds more they have not found yet. Estimates of his earnings run as high as US$300,000 (Dh1.1 million) a month. "Two of my brokers discovered him," said Harry Hall, a Las Vegas property agent. "They went to show one of our listed properties and found the locks had been changed and the 'for sale' sign taken down." A woman who answered the door told them Nargi had rented her the home. Another Las Vegas property agent, Kristina Pearson, said she had lost thousands of dollars on a foreclosed house Nargi had also rented out illegally.

"We had a buyer for the property, but since it took us weeks to evict Nargi's renter, we lost the sale," Ms Pearson said, adding that cleaning up after the tenant would cost her more than $1,000. Agents and investigators say Nargi typically rented properties to former criminals, new immigrants and people with poor credit, offering not to check their credit history as long as they agreed to pay their monthly rent in cash.

"The woman who had taken a lease on our place said she couldn't believe the great deal she got," said Ms Pearson. "She thought it was too good to be true; and it was." Amid one of the worst credit crises to hit the US real estate market, Nargi had a host of homes to choose from. August data from Realty Trak found 17 per cent of the 4.5 million homes for sale across the country were in foreclosure.

Authorities say similar property scams are taking place across the United States, where tens of thousands of homes are in or facing foreclosure. In the most common swindle, unscrupulous "loan rescue agents" offer to help families refinance their debts. They convince desperate owners to sign over the property title, and then rent them their own home. The agents promise to pay mortgage fees from the rent, but normally just take off with the cash, meaning the family's home goes into foreclosure anyway, and they no longer have the title.

Last week, the attorney general in Missouri filed a lawsuit against seven firms found to be cheating desperate families out of their homes. In California, one of the states hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, the government now warns families about foreclosure con artists on its website. In other cases, thieves have taken to breaking into foreclosed properties and ripping out copper pipes, air conditioning units and even window frames.

Nargi's technique was nothing new to investigators either. "This is actually an old scheme," said Pete Dustin, an officer from the Las Vegas police department's fraud division which is hot on Nargi's trail. "It reared its ugly head again when this housing crisis began." Nargi claimed "adverse possession" of the homes he rented out, according to Mr Dustin, using a little-known US law which in some cases allows squatters to take ownership of an abandoned property.

The problem is, at least five years have to lapse before adverse possession laws come into effect. Nargi tracked foreclosures on real estate websites, breaking in and taking over the homes just weeks after they went into foreclosure. Ryan and Rachel Summers are a young Las Vegas couple who rented a home from Nargi. Facing eviction, they tried to confront him with the help of a local TV news crew.

They arrived at his office with cameras rolling, only to find the Elvis impersonator had left the building - and possibly the state. "I kind of expected it," a dejected Mr Summers told TV8 News. The Nevada police and the FBI are building a case against Nargi, according to Mr Dustin, adding the real victims of these scams are not tenants like the Summers, but the banks who own the properties. Some believe Nargi fled to San Diego, California, where his company's website lists another office.

A woman who identified herself as Anne Nargi answered the phone at that number when called by The National. She refused to comment on her relationship to Elvis Nargi, would not explain why his name was on the website or admit to knowing the charges against him. "Finding Elvis is your problem," she said "I don't know where he is." Ms Pearson said Nargi had probably decided to remain in Las Vegas, a city which lists more Elvis impersonators in its phone book than stockbrokers.

"Here, he blends in," he said. "Anywhere else, with that look, he'd stick out like a sore thumb." @email:gpeters@thenational.ae

Updated: August 26, 2008 04:00 AM

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