Fraud in Surveying

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series November 2013

Editor’s Note: If you think that today’s surveying and geomatics schools are simply cranking out technology-fueled “button pushers,” think again. In her senior paper, Claudia Barrueta, recent graduate of Fresno State’s Geomatics Engineering Program, offers a thought-provoking case study of a surveyor who recognized a fraudulent situation and chose to do the right thing (here a fraudulent survey is defined as a survey done by an unlicensed individual). This article also shows how the fundamentals of boundary surveying are well served by these academic institutions. Some names in the case studied have been changed (they are italicized here when first referenced). Her full paper appears on our website.

The majority of the public is completely unaware of what a land surveyor is or what they do, that is until there is a property dispute. Then owners often hear, “Hire a land surveyor to tell you where your boundaries are.” There is one persistent problem and it is a big one: How can property owners know what is required of a land surveyor, especially when unlicensed individuals are out there claiming to do the same type surveying work? 

Case Study

In 2008, Anthony Cuomo dissolved his surveying company due to the devastating economic downturn. Unfortunately, he had to permanently let go of every person in the organization; John Doe was a party chief who had worked for Cuomo. The company was dissolved peacefully, and everyone within the company went their separate ways. 

Since then, Cuomo received a phone call from Lincoln Adams asking to receive a plat for the boundary Cuomo had performed on his property. Cuomo was completely unaware of what Adams was talking about; they hadn’t spoken previously, and Adams contacted Cuomo because Cuomo’s license number was on the tags that were set on his property.  

Cuomo realized that Doe had performed a boundary survey in Lucerne Valley using Cuomo’s tags. A few days later, Cuomo confronted Doe and confirmed that his tags had been set without his knowledge somewhere in San Bernardino County. 

Although Cuomo had nothing to do with the setting of his tags in Lucerne Valley, as a professional land surveyor he knew protecting the public was his first obligation. The adjoining property owners and the general public are not protected when there are monuments set in unrecorded areas by unlicensed individuals. Recognizing these important facts, Cuomo decided to do his own boundary survey and file a Record of Survey completely free of charge to the current owner.

The first step to doing a boundary survey is extensive research. Cuomo went through San Bernardino’s online record database and found multiple corner records, field survey records, field survey reports, parcel maps, and records of survey done in the area. It is essential to find as many records as possible. Cuomo took careful consideration of all the evidence and continued planning the field portion of the survey accordingly.

Once all the necessary records were acquired and evaluated, Cuomo used Star*Net Least Squares to convert all of the record geometry from those records into one homogenous adjustment to provide as precise search locations as possible from that record data. He did so by preparing text input files with the data from all the parcel maps and records of survey. Once all the text files are completed, Star*Net adjusts the data and gives the most probable coordinate locations for all the record monuments. If the technician has coordinate values for at least one monument, the program can give search coordinates for all the other monuments. 

The property owner who hired Doe to do the survey was Adams. Since the fraudulent survey was performed, there had been numerous owners of the property. The current owner is Rose Alba, who was contacted via mail informing her of the fraudulent survey. 

Alba was also informed that licensed land surveyor Cuomo would be going out to the property and performing a boundary survey at no charge to her. A surveyor’s right of entry is assured by law in California and is not dependant on giving previous notice. However, a surveyor should be cordial and communicate with the property owners. Unfortunately, although Alba was given over a month’s notice, she never responded to Cuomo.

A few weeks later, Cuomo and his crew went out to Lucerne Valley to do the field portion of the boundary survey. Cuomo wanted to traverse around the property as well as evaluate the positions where Doe set his tags. 

The survey began with a brief reconnaissance, and then it was on to search for the monuments. The first monument found was the northeast section corner of section 23. The found monument fit the description of the research. Then it was smooth sailing; the remainder of the necessary monuments fit the corresponding descriptions. It was very important that all research was done prior to going to the field; this helped evaluate the importance of the monuments being found.

Cuomo and his crew found an iron pipe with his tag, “LS 6042,” on the east half of the southwest quarter of the northeast quarter of section 23. Also, pipes with his tag were found on the southwest corner and the northwest corner of the Alba property. On the northeast corner of the property a 1” x 1” wooden hub was also found. Later Doe was contacted, and he confirmed that the wooden hubs as well as the pipe monuments were set by him.

During the following week, Cuomo worked on analyzing the field data and drafting the Record of Survey. He discovered that the first found pipe and tag bearing “LS 6042” on the property was 30.56 feet away from the true property corner. That same monument was also south 03°01’23” east from the property corner location. 

Later, when Doe was contacted, he said that the monument was meant to be set, on line, on a 30.00 foot offset from the corner. Doe’s measurement is off by 0.56 foot. Technology today offers tools and techniques that can provide much better results. Not only is Doe not qualified as a land surveyor, but he also falls short as an expert in measurement.

The Record of Survey has been drafted and is currently in the process of being reviewed and filed with the County of San Bernardino. Thankfully, San Bernardino’s county surveyor had agreed to waive the county map review fee for the Record of Survey due to the unfortunate circumstances.  

Damage Done

The property owner is the most obvious party being damaged when a fraudulent survey is performed; it affects his or her boundaries directly. A property owner pays a person who he believes is a surveyor for services, expecting these services to be performed to the best of the surveyor’s ability. A surveyor doesn’t have the authority to determine property ownership, but a surveyor does have the authority to give legal opinion regarding the location of a boundary. Knowing this, a property owner expects a surveyor to locate his boundaries and provide a plat showing the work done. When this is not achieved, the property owner does not get the professional service he paid for. An unlicensed individual is stealing from the property owner because part of doing a boundary survey is giving the client a plat and filing the records required by law. An unlicensed individual cannot file a Record of Survey; therefore, he or she cannot fulfill all the requirements for a boundary. 

surveyor is damaged when there is a fraudulent survey performed on his or her behalf. When a pipe and tag bearing his license number is found in an incorrect location, it can negatively affect that surveyor’s reputation. When an unlicensed individual uses someone else’s tags for a survey, he is essentially stealing money (business) from that surveyor, also negatively affecting the surveyor financially. 

fraudulent survey harms the profession. When an unlicensed individual takes land surveying work, he is damaging the perception of a surveyor in the eyes of the public. The term “professional” is primarily given by the public; if the public believes that land surveying is performed by unlicensed individuals, the value of land surveying is questioned. 

An unlicensed individual will do work much cheaper than the typical surveyor; this hurts the profession because clearance prices are the prices the public will begin to expect. Cheap land surveying services could ultimately bring down the monetary value of the land surveying profession as a whole, and this affects you.

Most importantly, the public is harmed when a fraudulent survey is performed. Licensure in land surveying is regulated by each state individually, specifically to protect the public. Land is unique and valuable to every person, and boundaries can be potentially harmed when a survey is performed a mile away. Boundaries are not usually set individually; they depend on adjacent property boundaries, as well. When a monument is set in an incorrect location it can affect where buildings and easements are set, and it can risk the location of streets. Incorrect monument locations can also complicate the decisions of land surveyors in the future.

Licensed versus Professional

Will a licensed land surveyor perform a more reliable and consistent boundary survey than an unlicensed individual? I believe the answer is obvious. A land surveyor is an expert in measurement, yes, but not just that. A land surveyor is expected to complete a plat, keep record, and make his records available to the public. Performing a reliable boundary survey is not just placing a monument within a few hundredths of a foot. Being a land surveyor is placing monuments in the correct location, referencing previous records, and filing records of your own so you can defend your decisions in court, if that should become necessary. 

An unlicensed individual cannot defend his decisions in a courtroom because he is not licensed by his state to set boundaries. In California, you are not allowed to present yourself as a land surveyor unless you are licensed by the state. If Doe’s decisions were questioned, there is no way he could defend his “boundary survey.” Additionally, the unlicensed individual cannot file records; therefore any “boundary”-related work he provides is fraudulent and holds no value. 

A professional land surveyor assumes his role as a land surveyor having the public’s best interest in mind at all times. A professional land surveyor will be a public servant first and a businessman second. The role of this professional land surveyor may at times cause a loss in business revenue; however this is a risk every person takes as a professional. 

Cuomo demonstrated professionalism by performing and recording the boundary survey without any monetary profit. His only profit was knowing that Alba’s boundaries were secured. Placing public welfare before monetary gain is what defines a true professional land surveyor.

After careful consideration, I have concluded that the term “professional” is invalid unless it’s a true attribute of an individual surveyor. The term “professional” is attached to the license in the State of California. In my opinion this could potentially hinder the profession. The term “professional” should be earned through the land surveyor’s career. Passing a test only theoretically (and minimally) qualifies someone to perform such work. The term “professional” should not be just handed to each individual land surveyor with a license certificate and a number—it should be individually earned.

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