Fortuna Estates: Busted by Spanish Police for Land Fraud

December 10th, 2008

The Spanish land investment scam run for years by Fortuna Estates has finally been busted, with the Spanish fraud squad swooping last week on several office in Mijas and Fuengirola, arresting at least 2 people, and questioning 20 others. This could be one of the biggest Spanish property scams to date, with hundreds, if not thousands of British and Irish victims. The Spanish authorities estimate that Fortuna Estates made at least 65 million Euros out of this fraud.

Still under official secrecy orders, the police have released few details about “Operation Fuentespino”, but the Spanish press reports that there could be more than 2,000 victims, mainly middle class investors from the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Fortuna Estates, which had changed its name to Fortuna Land (Investment) by 2007, snared its victims with the promise of high returns from land reclassification projects in rural Andalucia.

“Watch your investment in raw undeveloped land turn into commercial projects with multi-million euro potential,” promised Fortuna Estates, which started selling ‘shares’ in its projects in 2002.

Fortuna Estates contacted potential investors at through property exhibitions, cold calls and mailing lists, and a fairly substantial advertising campaign in the British quality press.

Claiming to be the “leading land investment agency based in Southern Spain,” Fortuna Estates offered its clients ‘shares’ in greenfield projects purporting to turn land in out-of-the-way parts of Andalucia into hot commercial property investments.

“Working primarily in the commercial sector of land development, Fortuna Estates has developed a program of investment techniques that bring this highly lucrative sector within the grasp of the ordinary investor,” claimed Fortuna.

Targeting the ‘ordinary investor’ was a key part of Fortuna’s strategy. It claimed it was making high-return land investments accessible to people who could not otherwise afford them. Many of Fortuna’s victims probably invested the minimum of around 10,000 Euros, and the vast majority probably had no experience of land reclassification or the realities of investing in Spanish property.

Fortuna sold various different projects over time, starting with a project called Bella Fortuna, then going on to sell projects called Sierra Fortuna, and Cazadores Reales.

An insight into how Fortuna hooked its clients with talk of high returns, backed up with invented figures, can be gained from Fortuna’s sales material.

“These factors have contributed towards the success of the Bella Fortuna project,” goes the patter. “This plot of stunning Andalucian countryside is over 400,000m² in size and located midway between Malaga and Granada, next to the town of Zafarraya. This project was first released to private investors in Sept 2002 at a price of €6.80m² and closed at a price of €9.20m² 14 months later. In Oct 2004 official planning permission for the Hotel Zafarraya complex was granted and the land was then independently valued at €37.59m².”

The valuations were meaningless, as Fortuna made them up to make it look like investors were making big profits, on paper at least. This was enough to keep filling the pipeline with new investors, and convince existing clients to invest more money in new projects. Some of Fortuna Land’s hapless investors are thought to have invested in as many as 3 of their projects.

Fortuna also beguiled it clients by doing all transactions through ‘independent’ lawyers and notaries, and giving clients “legally notarised title deed to the land in which they have invested.”

“ Whether your investment is for 5 acres or just a quarter of an acre, every investment is secured by physical ownership of the title document,” Fortuna assured its investors.

The plans Fortuna had for its land reclassification projects, and the way in which it kept changing them and announcing delays should have had investors’ alarm bells ringing. Plans veered around from hotels with a wedding chapel, to retirement homes, to solar farms. At one point, after long delays, they claimed they had received ‘verbal’ planning permission, but there is no evidence that Fortuna were serious about delivering on their promises.

Most of the victims of this scam are thought to be British, though Irish and Germans investors are also thought to be involved. As an article in the Spanish daily ‘El Pais’ points out, the British have fallen for numerous scams on the Costa del Sol over the last decade, mainly involving property.

The Fortuna Land scam was run out of offices on the Costa del Sol using companies registered in places like Cyprus and Delaware (USA). Currently the Fortuna Land website (fortunaland.es), claims they have “implemented a strategic relationship with The Oanna Group to realise your investment projects in Spain,” and instruct visitors to direct all future communications to oannagroup.com. The Oanna Group appear to have an office in London.

Despite making several arrests, the Spanish police do not think they have nabbed any of the masterminds, who are thought to have disappeared, and may already be working on their next scam.

Indeed, ‘El Pais’ reports that victims of the Fortuna Estates fraud have already been targeted by new scam that promises to recover their money for a fee of 10% of their investment paid up front.

Story from Spanish Property Insight

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