COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A Gahanna couple had no idea they were victims of an elaborate house-stealing scam until a man showed up at one of their properties and said he was the owner.

That was the first time the couple would meet Shahiydullah A. Binraymond, 49, who’d plotted and forged documents to lure them into signing over about $1 million worth of homes.

“He sent letters to this couple pretending to be writing from the Franklin County Treasurer’s Office,” said David Twombly, assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. “The letters, they were sort of vague, and a little bit threatening. They told these folks that there were problems with the tax payments that had been made on the properties, and that there were some problems with the deeds.

“He asked them to sign some paperwork that was included with the letter and send them back to him. He modified those documents that they sent back, and recorded them with the Franklin County Recorder.”

This is my property

The couple had no idea their properties were under threat as Binraymond enacted his scheme of transferring ownership into his trust.

“The way it was discovered was particularly frightening,” Twombly said. “Binraymond actually showed up at their house. This was after all of the scheme had taken place, more or less. He showed up at one of these properties and they happened to be there, and told them, ‘Hey, this is my property now.’ They called the police, and he was gone by the time police arrived. That’s how the investigation began.”

Binraymond, formerly named Raymond Walker III, is now in prison for 44 months, with three years of supervised release reporting to a probation officer after pleading guilty to mail fraud in March. He also agreed to cooperate with any actions to clear the title on the real estate.

But that won’t erase the distress the couple, known as JP and MP in court documents, felt when they realized that everything they’d worked for seemed to be legally in the hands of a stranger.

Red flags — almost

The fraud was thorough and warning signs subtle when the initial demand hit the couple’s mailbox in 2019. It seemed to be from the Franklin County treasurer, complete with what appeared to be the treasurer’s seal.

“This came out of the blue,” Twombly said, about the warning signs in the letter. “It was totally unexpected from a government agency, and a government agency asking these folks to do something with their property that they weren’t expecting.

“You expect your semiannual bill from the water department maybe. But when you have an agency reaching out to you for no reason, that’s usually a red flag.”

Binraymond seems to have found the couple through publicly available documents about properties, Twombly said.

What to do when alarm bells go off

“Just slow down and ask yourself, ‘Is this a legitimate request?'” Twombly said. “The letters use pretty standard fraud techniques. There’s pressure that’s applied: respond promptly. And usually, combined with that pressure, is some kind of threat: ‘Respond now, or else.’

“In this case it was: ‘Fill out this paperwork, and send it back to me promptly, or else you could have legal disputes over your ownership of these properties going forward.’ And that’s a real hallmark of a lot of fraud schemes because it plays on people’s fear and gets them thinking not rationally about what they’re being asked to do, but just responding through fear.”

In the blank space above the couple’s signatures, Binraymond inserted a paragraph that assigned ownership of the properties to a trust in his name, court documents said.

Guard yourself

There’s one important step to take when a letter, which seems to be legitimate, comes out of the blue and makes an unusual request, Twombly advised.

“Break the connection with the person who’s reaching out to you,” Twombly said. “Don’t respond to the letter itself. So you wouldn’t want to write back to whatever address they provide. In this case, there was a phone number provided there in the letter. You wouldn’t want to use the phone number.

“But if it’s claiming to be the Franklin County Treasurer’s Office … call them, explain the situation, and see if they can help you understand what’s going on. In this case, there’s a decent chance — a very good chance, really — that would have stopped the thing in its tracks.”

Trust your gut

And just like other instances of abuse, Twombly said to trust your gut.

“If you have a strong emotional reaction to something — if you feel pressured by it, if you feel threatened by it — that’s a good sign that you need to take a deep breath, take a step back, talk to a friend, a family member about it,” he said.

“Again, if there’s some organization or government agency that’s indicated to be associated with them there, contact them directly.”

Shahiydullah A. Binraymon, now in the Butler County Jail where he is serving time for mail fraud. (Courtesy Photo/Butler County Sheriff’s Office)