The college admissions scandal has been full of wonderful teachable moments – about ethics, humility, greed and corruption. Now for asset hunters there is a new nugget today: overpaying on purpose.

As the Boston Globe reported yesterday, a municipal home assessor found it odd that a home in Needham, Massachusetts (near Cambridge, where Harvard is) sold for close to a million dollars even though it was assessed at $549,000.

Why would someone overpay so much? The mystery deepened when the buyer sold the home 17 months later for a loss of $324,000.

It turns out the seller was the coach of Harvard’s fencing team. The buyer was a man whose sons were on the fencing team. Now Harvard has launched an independent review of the transaction.

What does all of this have to do with asset searches? Simple.

One easy way to hide assets is to overpay for something and then get your money back later from the buyer. It works as long as the buyer is someone you trust. That’s why we always ask clients for lists of trusted friends and associates of whomever we are looking at.

Husband pays $1 million for a racehorse worth $200,000. Seller of horse is his college friend. College friend holds the $1 million, and the plan is to give his friend back the $800,000 after the divorce is finalized.

Of course, in the Harvard case above, it may be that the coach gave out admissions favors instead of excess cash, but the principle is the same: overpay for something in order to get something back in secret.

We always want to know who owns the home, the office, the vacation place of anyone we look at. It can sometimes be a trusted friend holding the asset for them, or a company controlled by the occupant.

And if someone grossly overpays, that’s a red flag, whether you’re looking for cash or a spot at a famous university.

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Photo of Philip Segal Philip Segal

Charles Griffin is headed by Philip Segal, a New York attorney with extensive experience in corporate investigations in the U.S. for AmLaw 100 law firms and Fortune 100 companies. Segal worked previously as a case manager for the James Mintz Group in New York and as North American Partner and General Counsel for GPW, a British business intelligence firm. Prior to becoming an attorney, Segal was the Finance Editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal, and worked as a journalist in five countries over 19 years with a specialization in finance. In 2012, he was named by Lawline as one of the top 40 lawyers furthering legal education.  Segal has also been a guest speaker at Columbia University on investigating complex international financing structures, and taught a seminar on Asian economics as a Freeman Scholar at the University of Indiana.  He is the author of the book, The Art of Fact Investigation: Creative Thinking in the Age of Information Overload (Ignaz Press, 2016). He lectures widely on fact investigation and ethics to bar associations across the United States.