The SEC Is Using Satellites To Hunt For Fraudsters

I did not find the headline to be remarkable: SEC Charges Mexico-Based Homebuilder in $3.3 Billion Accounting Fraud. The subtitle caught my attention:

SEC Uses Satellite Imagery to Crack Case

We learned from the Rajaratnam insider trading case that the SEC was using wire taps and informants as part of its securities fraud investigations. The SEC is clearly stepping up a notch by using satellites to hunt for fraudsters.

The Securities and Exchange Commission caught Mexico-based homebuilding company Desarrolladora Homex S.A.B. de C.V. in a lie and forced it to admit that it had reported fake sales of more than 100,000 homes during a three-year period. From at least 2010 through 2013 Homex improperly recognized billions of dollars of revenue by systematically and fraudulently reporting revenue from the sale of tens of thousands of homes annually that it had neither built nor sold.

This all comes to late for investors in Homex. Its securities were, until April 2014, dually listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the Mexican Stock Exchange. In 2013 Homex had begun defaulting on its debt obligations and repeatedly failed timely to file quarterly and annual reports with the SEC. In April 2014, Homex filed for the Mexican equivalent of bankruptcy reorganization.

Homex’s Real Estate Project 877 (named “Benevento” and located in the Mexican state of Guanajuato) is illustrates the fraud. Homex’s senior management identified Benevento to the SEC as one of the Company’s top ten real estate development projects by revenue. Homex provided Benevento’s project plan (identifying the location, block and lot number of each planned housing unit), and details (by block, lot number, sale price and sale date) of the Benevento sales that Homex had included in its financial statements. These documents stated that all of Benevento’s planned units had been built and sold, and that Homex had recognized and reported that revenue by December 31, 2011.

However the SEC pulled up satellite images taken in March 2012 that reveal that hundreds of those very same Benevento units remained unbuilt.