It was evening when the stranger knocked on Carmen Ruiz's door. The young man with ruddy cheeks and gel in his hair said that he had heard from an acquaintance that Ruiz, a 57-year-old grandmother of three, was having a hard time making payments on her home.
Ruiz had indeed gone looking for help in the community, inquiring at a local travel agency about someone who could lend her money or help refinance her mortgage. There, she was told about a real estate agent who was known to help fellow Latinos, "an angel who had done so much for people."
Now this angel stood on Ruiz's front steps and was asking to come in. His name was Edwin Parada and he was a pastor at a local church, he said. Ruiz welcomed him into her tiny home and quickly began pouring out her troubles.
Everything had been fine, she explained, until she fell at her job as a gas station cashier and suffered an injury that required several surgeries. To make matters much worse, she had also been diagnosed with a brain tumor the previous year. On disability and only able to work a few hours a day, Ruiz quickly fell behind on her house payments. Within six months, she began receiving letters from her bank, warning that unless she paid the money owed, her home would be foreclosed on.
Parada told Ruiz to not worry, took her personal information, and then left. A few days later he was back, but he had bad news for Ruiz. Because of her poor credit history, refinancing the house would be impossible, he said. Instead, Parada told her he would change her title to his brother-in-law's name and Ruiz would make smaller payments to him. Parada, in turn, would pay the bank and Ruiz would keep her home until she could afford to "buy it" back from him, she recalls. Ruiz was so grateful that she didn't stop to question the man's motives or even consult with her adult children, who live in the same home.
An immigrant from Bolivia, Ruiz had spent years scraping by in series of low-paying jobs to save enough money to buy a home near San Francisco International Airport, where planes taking off and landing rattled her windows every couple of minutes.
"I was crying from happiness because I thought that the worst was behind me," Ruiz says. "I had sacrificed so much to buy my home ... and was willing to do anything to keep it. I had been praying so hard for God to help me and I felt like my prayers were finally being answered."
But within two months of handing over her title, Ruiz knew something was seriously wrong. First of all, her monthly payments jumped by $1,000, she claims. Then, she arrived home to see a "For Sale" sign on her front lawn. She dialed Parada frantically, but he told her not to worry. Eventually, he stopped taking her calls altogether, Ruiz says.
This spring, the San Francisco Police Department launched an investigation into the allegations against Parada, a 27-year-old former real estate agent. The inquiry will look into allegations that he preyed on immigrants with poor credit who were desperate to stay in their homes or to buy new ones.
Victims — all of them Latino immigrants — estimate that Parada took from them more than $1 million over the course of three years, which if true would make this one of the larger mortgage fraud cases San Francisco police have investigated, according to Marty Dito, a detective in SFPD's fraud unit.
Ruiz's case is getting top priority, not only because of the amount of money allegedly stolen, but also because as her illness progresses, time is running out.
"For a year and a half, Carmen made payments to Parada, thinking they were going towards the house," says Robert Steger, a fraud detective with the SFPD, who is leading the investigation into the former San Francisco real estate agent. "Now, she believes that none of the money went where it was intended and that instead Edwin Parada pocketed all of it." Police say they estimate that Parada may have taken about $165,000 from Ruiz—about $55,000 from the monthly payments and $110,000 from the equity of the house.
Three families have already filed lawsuits, and at least four others say they are considering litigation. But as the allegations mount against Parada — who is not a U.S. citizen, but a permanent resident — Ruiz and others wonder whether he will ever be held accountable because he spends much of his time traveling overseas, including in El Salvador, where he was born, and may be considered a flight risk by police.
As the number of homes facing foreclosure has skyrocketed around the country, so have incidents of mortgage fraud, making it a top-priority white-collar crime for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
And although immigrants are obviously not the only ones who have been victimized by unscrupulous agents, they are far more susceptible to abuse because they are unfamiliar with U.S. laws and often don't speak English well, say those who work in the immigrant community.
"The big issue is the language barrier," says Ricardo Corona, a home-ownership coordinator at the Mission Economic Development Agency, a nonprofit that offers assistance to people facing foreclosure or looking to refinance their homes. "If you don't speak a language very well, you feel more comfortable with someone who is your own kind, with the thinking being that 'because he is like me, but also speaks English, he will help me, he will protect me.'"
Those who know Parada say that is exactly the kind of rapport the agent created with his clients, some of them workers at the Red Cafe, a popular Mission diner Parada owned until October 2007.
The former clients describe Parada as a smooth-talking charmer with a lengua de oro, or golden tongue, who understood that for immigrants, owning a home was central to creating solid footing in their adopted country.