Title fraud is on the rise. Here’s why it won’t stop anytime soon.
South Florida is fertile ground for ‘title pirates’ — but with no procedures in place to verify deed ownership transfers, how can property theft be stopped?
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.
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.
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.”