Title fraud is on the rise. Here’s why it won’t stop anytime soon.
When family members of Lycienne Prince Barber were about to sell their dead relative’s two duplexes in Biscayne Park, they made a startling discovery. During the prerequisite title and lien searches on the properties, they found that a 55-year-old man named Hencile Dorsey, whom Prince Barber’s relatives never met, had filed two warranty deeds transferring ownership of the properties to his own name in February and March of this year.
Neighbors in the small village told Prince Barber’s relatives that Dorsey had gained access to the duplexes to change the locks and was planning to rent out the properties, according to Chelsea Silvia, a real estate attorney representing the deceased woman’s cousins. Her clients sued Dorsey in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, alleging the deeds under his name were fraudulent.
“When you are dealing with the death of a relative, estates can get messy,” Silvia said. “The last thing you expect to deal with is a fraudster appearing out of nowhere, spawning thousands of dollars in legal fees just to sell a property that is rightfully yours.”
Dorsey, who is facing five other pending criminal title fraud cases in addition to these two, declined to comment for this story.
From alleged one-man bandits like Dorsey to organized crime rings, the title fraud racket is booming in South Florida, a fertile ground for scams involving real estate assets of the deceased. Gary Singer, a Fort Lauderdale real estate attorney who owns a title company, said he encounters some type of title-related fraud multiple times a month.
“It’s very widespread, and everybody needs to be on the lookout for it,” Singer said. The region has all the ingredients to till property-pirating schemes. Title pirates, as Singer and other experts in title fraud call them, have a large pool of victims to prey on in Florida’s elderly population, for starters. In many cases, the owner of a home targeted by title pirates is an older person who is severely incapacitated or has died. The next of kin is usually in another state, or there are no longer any living relatives to handle the estate.
Florida law also makes the state hospitable for title pirates because county recorders’ offices are legally barred from verifying if a person on the deed is the true owner.
“There is so much money to be made from title fraud, and it’s not that hard to do,” Singer said.
Pillaging for booty
Victor Petrescu, a Miami-based lawyer who specializes in litigating fake title claims on behalf of lenders, said title pirates cash in on the scam by renting out properties or fraudulently selling homes to unsuspecting buyers until the bogus ownership claims are dismissed in civil court and title is conveyed to the rightful owner.
A deed only requires that the document be notarized and signed by two witnesses, but county recorders’ offices all over Florida are not required to verify if the signatures and the notary stamp are legitimate, Petrescu explained.
“You take it to the county recorder, pay a nominal fee of like $15 and the deed is recorded,” he said. “When you pull the chain of title, this other person will now appear as owner of the property.”
In recent years, Petrescu has seen a rise in title fraud involving individuals and groups with no connection to the owners of the properties they are laying claim to.
In 2016, Petrescu represented a client who was locked in a legal tussle with members of the Moorish Science Temple of America over 11 properties in Seminole County. His client was a lender that had acquired the parcels via foreclosure proceedings.
“They started filing quitclaim deeds because they believed they had a right to the land,” he said, noting the temple members were squatters and not renters. Petrescu added that they also attempted to resell the homes while litigation was pending over the title claims.
“It ended up delaying my clients’ legitimate sale of the properties, with one deal falling through,” he said. “It took about a year to resolve.”
Once a fraudulent deed is filed, title pirates can make a small fortune dealing in properties they have no legitimate claim to. For instance, by the time a 2014 Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation zeroed in on Robert Allen Tribble — a man with convictions for credit card fraud, credit card theft and forgery in Georgia — he had allegedly stolen $240,000 from renters and would-be buyers who believed he owned properties he was renting and selling to them. An FDLE report states that Tribble’s scam involved 35 homes in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Martin counties with a taxable value of more than $7.5 million. He allegedly collected mortgage and rent payments ranging from $2,500 to more than $20,000.
Tribble, convicted in November 2018 on five counts of organized scheme to defraud over $50,000, was sentenced to five life terms this past April. He is appealing the sentence on the grounds of double jeopardy.
Dead men tell no tales
Last year, the Broward sheriff’s office conducted Operation Tomb Raider, an investigation that ended with the arrest of seven people allegedly involved in a ring that illegally took ownership of 44 homes from unsuspecting owners and 18 deceased owners. The properties had a total value of $12 million and were mostly located in Coral Springs, Margate, Tamarac, Lauderhill, Parkland and Weston.
Using various shell corporations, the ring used stolen notary stamps and forged signatures to file fraudulent deeds and initiate property transfers without the knowledge of the true owners, according to arrest affidavits. Authorities alleged that ring members sometimes sold the same home to more than one person and collected mortgage payments from both buyers almost simultaneously. The case involved more than 600 counts of felony fraud.
Singer, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer, represented a relative of one of the dead owners, whose Margate home the ring illegally acquired through a fake quitclaim deed. He said his client learned about the fraud prior to Operation Tomb Raider, but the arrests made it easier to clear up the chain of ownership in civil court.
“The problem with this type of fraud is that the burden is on you to prove the deed is fake,” Singer said. “It took about eight months to get the fraudulent deed rescinded.”
Luckily, Singer had a laundry list of evidence that proved it was a fake deed, such as the notary public agreeing to testify that she did not stamp the document and that her signature had been forged.
“She didn’t even know anything about the deed and was willing to assist us,” he said. “There was also a long period of time between the date when the deed was signed and the date when it was recorded. Typically, you file a transfer deed on the same day all parties sign it.”
But criminal investigations are not enough of a deterrent against some title pirates. In July, Miami-Dade state prosecutors filed seven separate criminal cases against Dorsey, the man accused of illegally claiming ownership to the Biscayne Park duplexes. Dorsey is accused of forging deeds transferring title to five other residences in El Portal, South Miami and West Kendall. He’s facing dozens of felony counts of grand theft, organized fraud over $50,000 and unlawfully filing false documents. Dorsey is scheduled for trial in January, and if convicted faces a minimum of 30 years in prison.
Despite his legal troubles, Dorsey is still fighting to maintain his alleged phony claim to Prince Barber’s properties, said Silvia, the lawyer for her cousins.
“As it stands, the fraudulent deeds still appear as legitimate,” Silvia said. “The deeds still have the effect of interfering with clear ownership of the properties. No one will insure a property under those circumstances.”
On May 15, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge entered a default final judgement in favor of Prince Barber’s cousins after Dorsey failed to respond to their motion dismissing his claim to the property. But in mid-November, Dorsey, who doesn’t have a civil or criminal lawyer and is under house arrest, petitioned the Third District Court of Appeals to overturn the judgement, claiming he was not properly served court documents relating to the estate’s motion for default.
“We were hoping the criminal case would help, but it has not had any effect,” Silvia said. “Nearly 10 months later, the property has still not been sold, and the buyer is still waiting.”
Silvia said title fraud could be easily curtailed if county recorders’ offices were proactive in verifying deeds are legitimate.
“[The Dorsey] case is a frightening and disturbing portrayal of the recorder’s office inability or refusal to look beyond the face of a fraudulent document,” she said. “Mr. Dorsey recorded deeds for different properties all in a row on the same day. If that doesn’t scream fraud, I don’t know what does.”
A spokesperson for the Miami-Dade clerk of courts recorder’s office said a change in state law would be needed to grant it the authority to approve or deny deeds before they are filed as official county records, and that as it stands, the office’s role is “strictly ministerial with no executive authority.”
So if a deed is properly filled out and has a notary stamp, the office is required to file it, legitimate or not. Silvia said a few counties, like Pinellas, are enacting rules to prevent title fraud.
“Unfortunately, Miami-Dade is a breeding ground for real estate fraud,” she said. “It goes unchecked unless clients like ours choose to fight.”