Florida Counties Finally Address Rampant Deed Fraud. They Begin Cracking Down And Making Arrests
Homeowners are dead and their heirs are getting stiffed. All thanks to rampant deed fraud. Deed fraud has plagued South Florida for decades and local governments turned a blind eye to it until now.
Authorities arrested two women they say got control of two homes in Cooper City by using falsified documents. They say the women pocketed $510,000 for the sale of the homes.
Officials waited for Samantha Johnson and Sandra Shea to show up at the county government center in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The women had requested to dispute a tax charge. At that point, authorities moved in and arrested both women.
Fraud investigators with the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office pledged this is just the beginning. They say more arrests are coming.
Rampant Deed Fraud Begins At Probate Court
Investigators say Johnson and Shea identified the homes of dead people and then gained control of the homes through probate court.
Investigators say the pair persuaded a rightful heir to take a fraction of what the home was really worth. Then they stiffed him. In the second case, they convinced a man who had just been released from prison who had the same last name as a homeowner that he was an heir. He wasn’t but he needed cash. So, he went along with the scheme and took a small cut of the sale.
The woman face charges of scheme to defraud, elderly exploitation and grand theft. The names of their defense attorneys — or whether they’ve obtained them — weren’t available Monday.
BCPOA Fraud Investigator Mike Fisten said he has identified 67 homes throughout the state that these women unlawfully obtained. The properties are worth millions of dollars. He said 21 of them are past the statute of limitations to prosecute.
Criminals access public records online to identify non-homesteaded homes that have unpaid property taxes. They also search obituaries for people who have died. Then they seek out heirs.
Most of the targets are elderly and lived out of state. They are financially physically vulnerable. In some cases, they seek out false heirs who will go along with the ruse. Then they convince the heirs or fake heirs to sign over the house.
How Deed Fraudsters Find An Heir To A Home
Robert “Sonny” Shaffer recalls how his family received a phone call out of nowhere. The caller offered to help wade through government bureaucracy. Shaffer lived in Baltimore and didn’t know when his cousin had died. There were eight cousins who were the rightful heirs.
The family got a call from a woman who promised the family $40,000. She said all they had to do was sign a quit claim deed over the house. Their deceased relative was living in “squalor” and the fines were continuing to mount. So they sold.
But investigators say Johnson started to walk away from her end of the deal.
Johnson lied to Shaffer. She told him there was no money left after she sold the property to another investor.
She allegedly told him that she paid $25,000 for a new roof that she never replaced.
He wasn’t told the house had been sold. Property records show the home sold for $210,000.
Johnson never paid the $40,000.
There are only eight fraud investigators working in the property appraiser’s office on homestead and deed. However, officials say that is not enough for the number of complaints they receive.
So Broward’s Property Appraiser Marty Kiar said he’ll ask the state to approve funding for two new fraud investigators.
Last year, he launched “Owner Alert” to notify residents if the county office gets paperwork changing property ownership. It doesn’t prevent the fraud from happening. However, it alerts rightful owners within 24 hours by email if there’s a problem.
Kiar said he began pursuing the idea after a Hollywood couple forged documents to claim ownership of $17 million worth of real estate.
Rampant Deed Fraud: Fraudsters Busted
Johnson and Shea have also had run-ins with the legal system in the past. The federal government indicted them in federal court last year. The federal government charged them with violating the federal law restricting release of medical information.
Prosecutors allege in court files that Shea was working at Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood from 2012 through 2016. She had access to patients’ personal information including Social Security numbers and dates of death.
The indictment alleges they used the information to obtain leads and contact information to get title for their companies.
The women pleaded guilty. The court sentenced Johnson to 30 months in prison. Shea received two years and a $10,000 fine.
Monday’s new criminal charges are in state court, which is a different jurisdiction.
Fisten said the two Cooper City homes are separate addresses from the federal charges. One of the new cases came in February. This is just a month before their sentencing.
This Article Originally Appeared On MFI-Miami.
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