BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. – Companies charge hundreds and hundreds of dollars a year for a service to protect property owners from title theft and the service is now free in Broward County.
Marty Kiar, Broward County’s property appraiser, said scammers have figured out how to forge deed documents and file them with the county to take ownership of a home. The thieves have found a loophole.
Unfortunately, under Florida law, the records division for the county must accept any document that is filed. County offices are legally barred from verifying if a person on the deed is the true owner. The document only needs to be notarized and signed by two witnesses.
“They file fake deeds against someone’s property,” Kiar said. “Then they take those deeds and they try to extort, mortgage, sell or rent their property.”
Kiar said the scam happens so often it was important to develop a system to prevent title theft. Brian Allen, Broward County’s property appraiser’s director of technology, and his team developed it in about eight months.
“We just rolled this program out, it is called Owner Alert, just two days ago, and since then 26,000 homeowners so far have signed up for it,” Kiar said, adding that “Once you sign up if there is any title change on your property you will be notified immediately.”
Within 24 hours of its release, there were already four alerts generated where titles had changed hands and needed to be reviewed. Signing up takes less than five minutes and all that is required is the Property ID, which is on the letter Kiar is sending to property owners, and a driver’s license number.
“We have gotten thousands and thousands of calls from homeowners who call and ask if this is legitimate,” Kiar said. “It is absolutely legit. It is a free service.”
There is a desperate need for the service. The FBI has released bulletins to warn the public about title theft scams. As of Friday, there were more than 50 cases of title theft under investigation in South Florida.
In one case, a group faced charges for taking over 44 homes in Broward County that were valued at $12 million before they were busted. Broward Sheriff’s Office investigators arrested six people in the scheme. They allegedly stole distressed homes, including from the estates of 18 dead people.
Deputies identified the suspects as Catherine Lichtman, Mircho Murdjeff, Gillian Solomon, and three relatives: Illya Tinker, Patricia Tinker, and Darren Tinker. A seventh suspect, Compton Maycock-Beckles, had been arrested in 2016 on grand theft and fraud charges.
Joy Oglesby, a spokeswoman for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, said the suspects would sell, rent or live in the homes using powers of attorney or quitclaim deeds to take ownership of the properties. She said they operated under various company names, including Global Homebuyers, Prestige Home Buyers, and the Global Management Consulting Group.
An investigation began in June 2016 after a detective discovered that Maycock-Beckles was living in a foreclosed home that belonged to someone else. The original owner told the detective that he never gave Maycock-Beckles or his employer, Global Management Consulting Group, permission to live in or sell the Weston residence.
Oglesby said the suspects in the scheme are facing more than 600 felony charges, including grand theft and identity theft.