VICTORIA - British Columbia's civil forfeiture office repaid $70,000 to a 91-year-old California woman who was tricked into giving away her life savings to a lottery scam.
The office seized a Vancouver building that it identified as the headquarters of an alleged ring of international fraudsters. The property sold for almost $900,000.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said Wednesday repaying fraud victims is "normal practice" for the office.
"That's been a long-established use of civil forfeiture funds," she said. "The fraud is established. The money is recovered. It is repaid back to the victims."
The office has been under fire for alleged aggressive tactics. It is currently facing a lawsuit from a West Vancouver woman, Mumtaz Ladha, who alleges it tried to seize her home before she was acquitted of human trafficking.
Charges or criminal convictions are not required for the office to initiate civil court actions to seize property believed to have been purchased with the proceeds of crime.
The Ministry of Justice released a statement, coinciding with Victims of Crime Awareness Week and announcing the return of the funds to the unidentified elderly woman.
The ministry said California police contacted Vancouver officers in April 2012 about the woman who was led to believe she'd won $7.5 million and needed to wire money to a Vancouver bank to collect her prize.
The resident of Hillsborough, Calif., transferred her money to a fake organization called the Australian Government Lottery but then couldn't reach the swindlers.
The ministry said the forfeiture office obtained an order to seize the fraudsters' bank account and returned an initial $20,000 to the elderly woman in December 2013.
In August 2014, the office settled with the defendants and sold the property on Kingsway for almost $900,000.
The province issued a plea in December for victims of the alleged scams to come forward.
The 91-year-old victim was the only one to respond and was paid US$50,000, covering her entire loss.
Court documents show a number of different companies are named in the forfeiture office's claim, including Raza & Raza Investments Ltd., AGL Investments Ltd. and F&A Accounting Services.
The companies could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.
— With files from Dirk Meissner
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