Former Mrs. Pakistan used her striking appearance to scam California families
With "almond-shaped eyes," "flawless skin" and ''full beautiful lips," Saman Hasnain easily won the 2008 Mrs. Pakistan World beauty pageant, according to the group's president.
But the same physical assets that snared Hasnain that top title also helped her lure South Bay homeowners into a loan modification scam she and her husband, Jawad, operated from 2008 through October 2010, prosecutor Victor Chen contends.
"She was really pretty," said Korina Diaz, a Gilroy waitress who lost her ranch after paying the couple $11,500 to lower her mortgage payments. "She wore a skirt suit, high heels, nylons -- like a real good-looking professional lady."
Saman's striking appearance was crucial, Chen said, because the couple didn't know their victims and had to make a good first impression. They attracted homeowners by word-of-mouth and through fliers passed out at ethnic supermarkets after the housing market tanked, according to Chen.
Now the Santa Clara County deputy district attorney has charged them with ripping off 17 people -- just a fraction of the 80 to 100 families he says they defrauded. The Hasnains each face 19 felony counts of conspiracy to commit grand theft in the loan-modification scheme, and Jawad has been charged with nine additional counts of felony grand theft for allegedly enticing victims from 2006 through July 2010 into investing in a fraudulent 10-unit condominium development in Fremont.
However, there is one
problem: Earlier this month, the couple fled with their two young sons to Lahore, Pakistan -- a country that has no extradition arrangement with the U.S.
Very fine print
"The biggest crooks in this county aren't holding people up with a gun," Chen said. "It's the ones ripping people off with a pen or a computer and stealing their life's savings. So many good people's lives were ruined by these defendants."
In the loan-modification scam, Chen said, the couple charged homeowners at least $4,500 and often more to renegotiate their mortgages with banks.
The couple promised to refund the money if they failed to get the loans modified. To show their sincerity, the payments were placed in an escrow account.
But buried in the fine print of the contracts was a provision allowing Jawad to empty the escrow account, Chen said. Jawad used the proceeds from the loan-modification and investment scams to buy plastic surgery for Saman, as well as to pay for his Mercedes and the mortgage on the $2.2 million house they own in the Almaden Hills, the prosecutor said.
Chen charged the couple with multiple counts of grand theft in connection with the loan-modification scheme because he said they made no bona fide effort to get the loans modified and never refunded the money despite repeated pleas. It became illegal for anyone in California to collect advance fees for loan-modification services on Oct. 11, 2009.
Jawad faces a maximum of 19 years and four months in prison, and Saman at least four years. But it is rare for white-collar criminals to serve that much time; often, they serve far less, especially if they pay their victims back.
Friends hurt, too
Diaz, 38, said she and her husband were not behind in their payments when she picked up one of the couple's loan-modification fliers at a Mexican supermarket in Gilroy.
But they were worried that her husband's concrete business would drop off after the housing crash, making it difficult for them to keep up with the $6,000-a-month mortgage on their 2.5 acre, $1 million ranch. Diaz said after she paid the Hasnains the $11,500, the couple advised her to stop making the mortgage payments, otherwise the bank wouldn't have an incentive to renegotiate the terms of the loan.
Diaz was so impressed by the couple that she invited about 30 friends to her house to listen to their pitch. About 20 also forked over thousands, she said, and most lost their homes.
Diaz didn't figure out she had been bilked for about 10 months -- too late to stop a Florida bank from taking their home. Now, she and her husband and three kids live in a cramped apartment.
Her advice to others to avoid being duped? "Not to believe anybody," she said, "who comes knocking on your door, even if they look nice."