It’s that simple. If the actual owner doesn’t notice that the owner of record has changed, the fraudster can then sell or rent the house, borrow against the equity, or take out a mortgage, among other options.
Officials at the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office and
A growing problem for seniors
Broward County Property Appraiser
Last summer, an investigation by Kiar’s office and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office led to arrests and convictions of two women who searched obituaries and used deed transfers to swindle heirs out of homes owned by deceased relatives. An investigator in Kiar’s office said the women were connected to 67 such cases across the state.
In October, a 44-year-old man was charged with creating a fictitious person to become executor of a
In August, a
Many of the fraudsters are out-of-state residents who look for properties owned by recently deceased elders, says
Seniors can enlist heirs to help with alert services
While local officials say they have no power to stop fraudulent recordings,
Broward’s service can be found online at https://web.bcpa.net/owneralert.
Hundreds of thousands of homeowners have signed up for such services. But what might not be well-known is that heirs or designees of elderly homeowners such as Felder, who aren’t comfortable using email or the internet, can sign up on their elders’ behalf.
Broward County’s “Owner Alert” service requires users to submit an official property identification number, plus a state driver license number or identification card number to verify ownership of the property.
An heir or designee of the owner who wants to receive alerts must contact the office to identify themselves and their relationship to the property owner, Kiar says.
Palm Beach County’s “Property Fraud Alert” service, however, does not require proof of ownership or verification of the user’s relationship to the homeowner. Users can simply type in the owner’s name, the property address, its parcel number, and the legal description of the property to have alerts sent to the user’s email address.
Because Palm Beach County’s Clerk of Courts administers that county’s service, it differs from Broward’s service by sending alerts whenever any document is recorded involving the property, including liens, mortgages, and notices of commencement by contractors.
Miami-Dade County’s Clerk of Court does not yet offer an email alert service but mails a letter to property owners whenever a Quit Claim Deed is recorded for the property.
Fraud cases on the rise
Kiar and Abruzzo say there’s no way to determine how many of the alerts in their counties resulted from fraudulent deed recordings, but
The five-member investigative team working out of Kiar’s office includes two full-time investigators recently hired by the office, plus a Broward County Sheriff’s Office detective and a
Since February, the unit has investigated 109 complaints, found about 60 fraudulent deeds and helped police make six arrests, Kiar said.
Felder feels lucky to have discovered the deed transfer before his house was sold. He has no plans to leave until he dies.
The discovery “made me feel real bad,” Felder said in an interview. “You know how you’d feel if you’ve stayed in a house since 1960 and paid the house off.”
Making matters worse, Felder says he was in his bedroom one day recently when he heard three people enter and wander around his house. It was an investor and two prospects. Felder believes that the person who filed the deed transfer also was trying to sell the house for
Felder’s case is under criminal investigation, a
Felder is working with a former title company owner to get his deed transferred back into his name.
Since then, Smith has been working with Felder and his niece to help investigators gather evidence against the suspected fraudster.
Act fast to make wrongs right
Schwartzreich says it’s important for homeowners to sign up for owner alert services because time is of the essence when fraudulent deed transfers are filed in a county’s recording office.
Victims “need to immediately reach out and report the fraud to us and their local law enforcement agencies, as well as their mortgage servicers,” she said. “They should notify as many people of the issue as possible as quickly as possible. Then the investigative process begins.”
It’s much easier to rescind the fraudulent filings if they are discovered before the fraudsters rent or sell a property or use it as collateral for a loan, she says.
Owners will be asked to provide information to help law enforcement agencies identify and arrest culprits. They’ll also be asked to provide statements under oath attesting that they are the true property owners and were victimized by fraudulent transfers, Schwartzreich said.
Immediately after discovering the fraudulent transfer by the
Felder filed a similar affidavit earlier this month, Broward County Official Records show.
Rightful owners will likely have to go to court to set things straight, Schwartzreich said. “Unfortunately, it’s not pleasant for the property owner,” she said. “The good thing is, property owners have resources and we are that resource.”
Options include seeking to vacate or rescind the fraudulent deed in criminal court or working through the civil court to file a Quiet Title Action to get the title restored in the rightful owners’ names, she said.
Kiar and Abruzzo say they regularly reach out to elderly homeowners to urge them to sign up for the fraud alert services.
Kiar says he travels to retirement villages preaching the importance of monitoring their property’s records.
Abruzzo says he urges homeowners not to fall for third parties advertising the same alert services for a fee. “They’re just obviously linking to our system,” he said. Programs provided by counties, including
“I implore property owners to please sign up. It’s free and can save you a lot of headache some day,” he said.
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