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Uncloaking a Slumlord Conspiracy with Social Network Analysis (orgnet.com)
329 points by danso on Jan 6, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 69 comments

We do this kind of analysis where I work for detecting fraud. I can't go into too many details, but I can probably show you a simple example: http://i.imgur.com/feJLd.png

This is showing some of the relationships between users in the system. You take a user that you know is dodgy, and then start looking at what they have in common with other users.

Also, slightly offtopic—I open sourced the graph visualisation part: http://github.com/dhotson/springy

dhoston/springy is awesome !

Ok, I thought that was cool.

Its a bit scary, in that it will force such conspiracies to become more complex (its an arms race after all), and it highlights a 'good' use of an analysis technique which the evil doers can use against their enemies, but still.

I'm reminded of Julian Assange's essay[1] on the nature of conspiracies, and how leaks serve to impose a 'secrecy tax' upon them, further obfuscating and reducing the power of information-sharing links between nodes. In his view, the additional complexity and reduction of trust among members of a conspiracy that results from leaks reduces its ability to properly react to novel stimuli, eventually leading to its downfall. It's an interesting essay, and I'm somewhat surprised to see such a germane example here.

[1] http://cryptome.org/0002/ja-conspiracies.pdf

"Its a bit scary, in that it will force such conspiracies to become more complex (its an arms race after all)"

I'd say rather that it will push smaller players out of this kind of corrupt business. If you can't sell the business to your uncle without someone making the connection, you have to have a wider circle of trusted conspirators. If you're the mafia, that may not be a problem. If you're just a crooked family, you might just go out of business.

Exactly. Keeping it in the family allows for easy trust... once that trust-web is exposed, it only leaves those who have heavily invested in "enforced non-traceable trust" (ie, the mafia, etc).

I think in the end it may make it more profitable not to extract equity at the community's expense, but rather to engage in honest business. I love this kind of article.

The diagrams remind me of the hand-drawn ones FBI agent John O'Neill created after the USS Cole incident and continually updated prior to the attacks of 9/11.


Was that the best Frontline ever or what? Thanks.

Agree. The independent documentary "The Devil's Miner" about teenage Bolivian miners ranks up there too.


I guess I'm confused.

I can see how real estate owners and mortgage companies have relationships with each other. (A lot of small owners have investments from family and friends and use a single mortgage financing company with experience closing tough initial investment deals)

What I don't understand is how the social network analysis led to a conviction. What does the connection mean? Can someone else explain it?

If you are cited for code violations, then you sell the property to your brother before the deadline to comply, and claim compliance is no longer your problem, that's fraud. This kind of analysis can be used to show a pattern of that kind of fraud.

Is the problem that I sold the property before complying, or that I sold it to my brother? What makes selling to my brother any different from selling to a stranger? [supposing we live in different households with independent assets]

There was a whole group of people who were doing this constantly. So all the properties stayed within the same group.

Normally, you could sell the property to a stranger... but then you wouldn't be able to benefit from it anymore. This way it "stays in the family."

This seems unlikely due to the taxes and paperwork expense of transferring property even with no brokerage fees.

I really don't see how the social network proves wrong doing.

I'm actually worried that an overzealous prosecutor and advocacy group prosecuted people who were not guilty.

Obviously I don't know all the details so maybe they should be convicted, but they weren't provided, so it is hard for me to evaluate.

Sham transactions are a common part of financial crimes. Ownership didn't change in fact, just on paper. Linking all the owners together in one family showed that the transactions had no material effect on where the rent and equity money was going.

It seems likely that the prosecutor was able to document that the finances didn't make sense without the participation of 'Heather' and great deals from 'Moe'.

> This seems unlikely due to the taxes and paperwork expense of transferring property even with no brokerage fees.

AFAIK, the one-time govt. fees to record a property transfer is relatively small.

This in the US. http://www.arjanihomes.com/custom-tax_guide.htm-CONTENT_TAX_... says ~$3k for a 1M house.

What sort of numbers did you have in mind?

They didn't really get into to much detail, but what usually happens with these situations is that all of the LLCs are just funneling the proceeds into the same bank accounts, no matter whose name is on the LLC paperwork. In this case, it appeared that the patriarch's bank accounts were the ultimate destination for the money regardless of which LLC owned a building at any given time. The twist on this case was that the mastermind was also in a position to facilitate better terms for each subsequent sale.

I think that is exactly what they'll have to prove, as I am not sure if there is a law that says you can't sell something to your brother.

It seems as if the true owner of the property wasn't changing, but just the name of the nominal owner on the paper. Control stayed with the same group.

It's about rens mea. The clear intent to defraud. Selling to your brother in good faith is fine. This circumstance is clearly not good faith.

Mens rea, please! Rens mea suggests that it's all about my kidneys (renes). Admittedly, an English prosecutor might allege that the defendant was taking the piss :-)

I'm not a lawyer and I haven't done anything more than read the article, but I suspect the problem is that a group of associated people did it 3 times.

The social network analysis led to the uncovering of a conspiracy to commit fraud, etc. It's similar to, say, someone hiring a hit man to kill their spouse, except in this case the links are more complex.

That was interesting.

If you like this kind of sleuthing and analysis, you'll enjoy http://sharesleuth.com/ - Which is a Mark Cuban pet project that investigates shady listed companies in search for shortable targets.

I wonder if this type of business behavior explains some of the places in Boston I saw that were always "going out of business" only to reopen the next day, as practical the same thing. There was a rug store on Boylston that was like that. I swear it must have had 10 going out of business sales.

Many states (and some cities) require companies to obtain "going out of business sale" permits for this very reason.

It's considered a deceptive and fraudulent practice to have a final liquidation sale when the firm is not really going out of business.

See, for example, the form required in TX (a state not known for heavy regulation compared to say, CA):

http://www.window.state.tx.us/taxinfo/taxforms/50-290.pdf [pdf]

§ 17.82. Prohibited Conduct (a) A person may not conduct a sale advertised with the phrase "going out of business," "closing out," "shutting doors forever," or "bankruptcy sale"; the word "foreclosure" or "bankruptcy"; or a similar phrase or word indicating that an enterprise is ceasing business unless the business is closing all of its operations in a county and in all of the counties immediately adjacent to that county and follows the procedures required by this subchapter. (b) A person may not fraudulently represent that the person is conducting a going out of business sale.

In high school I was working at a failing grocery store that decided to go out of business. In the weeks prior to the going out of business sale we marked up everything in the store by at least 33%. Then we had the "sale".

I remember the manager telling me we were making $30,000 a day during the week-long sale. I guess "going out of business" is good business, haha.

Yeah, I remember a few years back when a lot of businesses were going out of business reading online accounts of these tactics.

One that especially sticks out is when the Circuit City chain went under. I remember reading about how they brought in an outside company to handle the sales, and the first order of business was to raise all the prices on everything in the store. DVDs that they couldn't sale at $10 were suddenly flying off the shelves at $20 (don't remember the exact numbers).

It makes you realize what a fine line (which each person has to draw for themself) there is between clever marketing and slimy, manipulative tactics.

This practice is an interesting play on expectations; namely, that a fire sale implies deep discounts on goods. It is similar to the tactic used at Black Friday at just about every major retailer: have a few major loss-leaders in your ad, and discreetly mark up everything else in the store.

Is this manipulative? I wouldn't call it that, at least not more than any other retail tactic. Consumers have more price information available to them than ever before, yet they are still amazingly susceptible to the idea that they are getting a good deal, nevermind that the widget that they are saving 25% on costs half as much on Amazon. If using psychology as a sales tool is unethical, then the idea of advertisement and "sales" must be as well.

Free markets are only efficient if consumers act rationally. In addition to being unethical, manipulative marketing is bad for the economy. It's in everyone's long term interest to regulate false advertising.

I went into Circuit City during their sale and was not at all surprised at how expensive everything was. What I was surprised by, though, were the people who were paying those prices in a store that wouldn't be around to provide any service.

This happens at a smaller scale all the time, too. One example that stood out at me was my local grocery store's store-brand salsa (which is surprisingly good). Used to go for $2/bottle. After a while, they bumped the price up to $3/bottle, and then put it "on sale" for $2/bottle. No idea if it increased sales at all, but that "sale" has been a permanent fixture ever since.

People's perception of prices can be really malleable, so it can pay off a lot to have a high price in a location where people will be expecting the price to be better than usual.

This is common supermarket practice in the UK, they buy product in and put it on sale at a high price and then after 30 days they're allowed to slap sale signs around them. It's most obvious with wine (the amount of £5 reduced from £10 bottles which are clearly not worth £10 is astonishing).

Pretty much every furniture store in the area has been going of out business for the last 5 years. Then they move down the street and then go out of business again. It is like a game. Is there a school where all the furniture store owners go and it teaches that specific business practice?

I'm guessing that is done to get out of a lease. commercial lease costs have tanked throughout much of the country over the last few years.

"How to research a slumlord", from last year, has a lot more information about the process: http://drpop.org/2010/04/how-to-research-a-slumlord/

the link's so good it's even included in the article.

A similar situation in the state of Texas: multiple units under a condominum regime with a (now majority) owner who wants to buy all remaining units, raze the structures and convert the land to commercial use.

A minority of condo owners want to continue to live in well-maintained condos in a nice part of town where commercial real estate is _very_ expensive.

You guessed it, the majority owner is a shell corporation with the church/school behind it. The majority owner has slowly purchased units, stripped them of utilities and let them lie fallow without renting them.

The subdivision has well-written deed restrictions limiting the land to residential-only use. Commercial entities are specifically disallowed (churches and private schools are commercial entities in Texas). The deed restrictions can be changed only by majority subdivision vote once every 10 years (2020 next vote). The church/school does not own a majority of the land in the subdivision.

Through these shell corporations, the church/school has quietly purchased properties at residential rates in this deed-restricted residential-only subdivision and then converted the land to commercial use (IMO a clear violation of the deed restrictions). Commercial land in the same neighborhood is _very_ expensive. The city is allowed to enforce deed restrictions but is reluctant to do so.

The condo regime requires that units be kept for the welfare of the owners and residents but soon the majority owner will take over the condominium board. Minority owners fear that the majority owner will use the condominium association's powers to drive them out..

To me there appears to be a legal conflict of interest: all condo owners sign an agreement to support the condo regime and the welfare of all owners in perpetuity, yet this particular majority owner seeks to liquidate the condo regime.

Anyone have expertise in handling this type of case in Texas? Or who can direct me to someone familiar with this type of takeover?

What does this have to do with conspiracy? The ties of the church/school to the city government, the local legal community and real estate developers are deep and intricate. Most real estate attorneys we have spoken to have some affiliation with the church/school (which is a very large and very wealthy organization) and cannot or will not sell their services to us. For years the companies that were acquiring units in the condo used multiple shell corporations to do so. It was not clear what was happening until fairly recently.

A fun way to explore some (very different) data in a similar manner is to use Palantir's https://analyzethe.us/ - the Palantir client is pretty complex but extremely powerful for this kind of social network analysis.

It just seems unlikely that every single state will require the actual owner of the LLC to be in public records. If that is the case, good luck finding the owners. Ideally the slumlord will have a different registered agent (person in the relevant state who handles the LLC paperwork) for each LLC and the superintendent only deals with a lawyer. Again, different lawyer for each building/LLC. You can sue the LLC, but the only asset that'd own is the building itself. So, properly done, it seems that slumlords can get away with it. Of course, paying all these lawyers might be more expensive than being a decent landlord, it is probably a lot less work.

I feel like I'm missing some practical uses of knowing the superintendent, local and out-of-state lawyer for each building (or building/LLC combo). I only skimmed the linked How To Research a Slumlord, although the results seems to be "render the LLC useless by suing the actual owner".

As time went on, and the buildings appreciated in value during a real estate boom -- loans from the mortgage company allowed the owners to "strip mine" the equity from the buildings. This is a common slumlord modus operandi -- they suck money out of a building rather than put money back in for maintenance.

Strip mining the equity? It's their building, isn't it? Seems to me that if someone wants to own a pile of cash and a worthless building instead of owning a well-maintained building, that's a business decision they should be entitled to make.

Buildings with sewage leaks, inadequate electrical systems, and vermin infestations are a public health hazard, e.g. fires from electrical malfunctions.

Thus, it may be argued that local governments have a legitimate interest in setting minimum property standards.

Typically, owners are given the opportunity to correct violations and fined if they do not.

As fines accumulate, governments will often work with prospective purchasers in order to make transfer of the building's ownership economically viable and provide relief to owners who are unable or unwilling to comply with minimum property standards established by law.

Keep in mind that these buildings are inhabited -- the tenants of these buildings are citizens.

The city government represents their interests - in the US property ceased being the basis for citizenship a number of years ago - and that other citizens are also paying for fire protection and other services which must be rendered by the jurisdiction.

Buildings with sewage leaks, inadequate electrical systems, and vermin infestations are a public health hazard, e.g. fires from electrical malfunctions.

Right, and that's why (most) cities have building codes.

Typically, owners are given the opportunity to correct violations and fined if they do not. As fines accumulate, governments will often work with prospective purchasers in order to make transfer of the building's ownership economically viable and provide relief to owners who are unable or unwilling to comply with minimum property standards established by law.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem here is that landlords can dodge fines by selling a building. If the tenants of sub-code buildings received a statutory reduction in rent until the building is back to code requirements, there would be no incentive for landlords to operate sub-code buildings.

The issue of imposing externalities on tenants is, however, entirely orthogonal to the issue of building equity which I was responding to.

Right, and that's why (most) cities have building codes.

Right, and that's why it's only profitable to strip mine for equity if you engage in fraud to avoid the building codes.

This shouldn't be an effective strategy. In many municipalities, the code enforcement bureau can record abatement liens, which must be paid before title to the building can transfer.

In some cases, civil penalties enforceable in a court of law may also be applied to the property, which the current owner may disclaim if they existed at the time of purchase (so the prior owner must pay).

See, for example, the FAQ from Sonoma County (outside of SF).


As a practical matter, municipalities often hesitate to encumber problematic properties with large liens because they make transfer of property to a new owner with better promises less economically viable.

The theory that the prior owner must pay, is simply not the case. First because liens run with the land regardless of ownership, and secondly, because a new owner's name cannot be recorded on the deed until the lien is cleared (and thirdly because everything in a real-estate transaction is negotiable).

If you read the link, it says that in the case of a civil penalty (not a lien), the prior owner can be excused from paying under some circumstances.

Building codes regulate construction. They do not regulate existing structures. That is why there are property maintenance codes (as well as fire codes).

I think in my area (Vancouver) there's a set of codes which cover both new and existing buildings; but yes, I should have been clearer.

Construction occurring on existing buildings falls under the building codes. However, existing buildings in which no construction is taking place are not regulated by the building codes - as noted previously, building codes regulate construction.

Thus, they are silent in regards to the maintenance of existing structures and the ways in which they are occupied, hence property maintenance and fire codes respectively - e.g. the building code inspects a fire sprinkler system when it is in installed, a property maintenance code may require continuous water service to the structure, and the fire code require that the system is regularly tested.

Here is the Vancouver, Washington Property Maintenance Code: http://www.cityofvancouver.us/MunicipalCode.asp?menuid=10462...

With proper Canadian propriety, here is Vancouver B.C.'s "By-law to prevent the existence of untidy premises within the City of Vancouver": http://vancouver.ca/bylaws/4548c.PDF

> If the tenants of sub-code buildings received a statutory reduction in rent until the building is back to code requirements, there would be no incentive for landlords to operate sub-code buildings.

However, then there would be an incentive for tenants to the building damage through neglect or abuse in order to avoid paying rent.

However, to counter this as renters the tenants are or should also be liable for any neglect or abuse that falls out of regular wear and answer to the landlord. Deliberately breaking property or failing to notify the landlord of, for example, water visibly leaking into the building structures or occasional light smoke out of the fuse box means that while the tenant could try to legally avoid having to pay rent but end up paying (likely) much more for the damages.

Or is this not true in the U.S. or certain states or cities in the U.S.?

I suppose it depends on whether you think the person "strip mining" the building should be allowed to expose the building's tenants to raw sewage and high levels of lead, and not pay their utility bills.

People are entitled to make that decision, but they are not entitled to also rent out an "uninhabitable" building while doing so (or to avoid paying utilities). The slum lords here juggled ownership between different LLCs in order to avoid that little problem.

Why would the tenants continue to live there? Most cities have landlord/tenant regulations that tilt towards (if not strongly favor) the tenants. I would have just moved out.

"Most cities have landlord/tenant regulations that tilt towards (if not strongly favor) the tenants."

Maybe you missed the part where the landlords were blatantly in violation of those regulations.

Also, the tenants continued to live there largely because they didn't have many options. For most of these people the only option otherwise available to them would likely be a homeless shelter.

Or living in a less expensive area where people aren't trampling over each other to bid for such valuable real estate.

I understand the sympathy for the poor, but that sympathy should not extend to giving them inefficient subsidies through rent control of high-value real estate. There are good ways to help the poor; letting them crowd out better uses of critical real estate that a thousand other people would thankful to live in at ten times the rent ... isn't one of them.

(If you're wondering what rent control has to do with this, it's the reason that slumlords have to resort to such elaborate tactics to clear out a building for redevelopment in the first place.)

I'm also against rent control from an economic standpoint, but poisoning your tenants is not the right way to protest the issue. A fifth amendment suit about rent control as an indirect taking (and pursuit of appropriate compensation) would be a better approach.

I'm not defending the tactic of poisoning tenants as a protest against rent control!

Sorry, I meant that as a rhetorical 'you.' Some people do think that way, sadly.

Because the properties are probably the cheapest around meaning that the people who live there would have to move up, not sideways. Not everyone can afford that.

Because they are poor and stupid. I don't mean that as a pejorative: they don't have many resources to expend on pursuing their rights against the landlord, which can take time, and if they're being continually exposed to lead (eg via water pipes or ventilation), they're likely suffering from chronic low-level brain damage, especially those who have been occupants of the building since childhood. That's what makes the landlords' behavior so objectionable; the property they are renting out is not merely unpleasant, but dangerous to both the physical and mental health of the inhabitants, at least some of whom are more likely to end up participating in crime - at further danger to themselves, and to the community at large.

Buildings are not owned in isolation. It affects the whole community, potentially the whole neighbourhood.

I'm no slumlord, but the fact that people can do this analysis with public data does spook me more than a little.

Still, that's good detectivework and a great outcome!

And now I want to start a conspiracy. It just looks so cool!

Imagine how much easier this is when the subjects openly declare their connections on Facebook.

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