When Arlene Tilt got a call from her sister asking her if she was selling her waterfront property in Cape Coral, to say she was confused would be an understatement.
The property along Southwest 3rd Avenue was passed down to Tilt by her parents, who bought the property decades ago. Her sister lives next door, the same house her parents have lived in since the 1960s.
On September 9, Tilt’s sister saw a truck pull up in front of her sister’s property and set one up “for sale” Post to a local agent who you can contact if interested. Tilt’s sister immediately called her. That’s when she and her husband found out that the property was for sale.
Someone posing as Tilt’s husband contacted a local realtor and put the vacant lot on the market for $650,000.
“I called the number and asked why they put a sign on my property.” Tilt said. “They said it was because my husband had signed a listing agreement. I said, ‘No, he didn’t.’”
“We chatted a bit more and they said I (the person posing as her husband) called frequently to see how things were going.”
Tilt then found that the property had been listed 17 days earlier, on August 23, and entered the Multiple Listing Service. The lot has been listed on several websites as it has been picked up by many agencies.
“I never would have known until the sign went up” Tilt said. “We were shocked.”
Tilt, who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, said the contact number for the apparent scammer came from a 617 area code, the same as hers in the Boston area.
She said the agent told her all contact with the scammer was over the phone.
Tilt contacted the Cape Coral Police Department, who confirmed to The Breeze that they are investigating. The listing has been removed from the plethora of sites where it was posted. Tilt is very grateful that this was noticed by her sister, who luckily lives next door, and said the out-of-reach price for the property may have played a role in why it wasn’t sold.
“My goal here is to do everything in my power to protect property owners and potential buyers from fraudulent agreements.” She said.
Tilt suspects her husband’s name was taken from public records and is frustrated that the floodgates are open to this criminal activity.
She said she was surprised a listing deal had come about and wanted everyone to be aware that a potential seller might not be the owner.
“I think if I were to list or buy my property I want to make sure the agent knows who I am.” Tilt said. “Say if a buyer came to buy my property and I hadn’t taken it off the market and it went through; I think a stockbroker has to do a lot of due diligence.”
Industry gets involved
Gloria Tate, a Cape Coral City Council member and longtime realtor, said land fraud is a popular crime right now and certainly occurs in Southwest Florida.
“It happens all the time. I’ve experienced it myself quite often.” She said. “I see it at least once a month when a person tells us they want to sell their land and don’t own it.”
Tate said she has a contact point at CCPD that deals with fraud cases and that people are on the internet looking for land that they could possibly pose as the owner.
“The Cape is a hub for vacant land and it’s so easy to email,” Tate said. “Realtors don’t realize that someone who signs a listing agreement doesn’t know if they own that property.”
She said brokers can ask these people for documentation they can tamper with and that she’s even seen people create fake passports to come across as someone they’re not.
“There are just so many ways to attempt land fraud these days.” Tate said.
Tate said industry leaders are aware of the problem and are working to curb land fraud attempts.
“We’re working with the state legislature to try to come up with some rules and laws that will help protect us.” Tate said. “Realtors need to make sure they are contacting the real seller. And the real seller has to provide a certificate of guarantee and some kind of ID to confirm who he is and he has the opportunity to sell it. Especially in some of these cases where there are estates and we don’t even know who the real owner is. These are prime targets for scammers.
“Don’t think they don’t look at obituaries for people who have died. they troll. They do. Anywhere they can find a loose end or someone who seems gullible, they do. It’s very common.
“Everyone needs to work together to figure out how we deal with property fraud. It’s been like this for many years, it’s only becoming more common because of the internet.”
What you can do to protect yourself
Recently re-elected Lee County Clerk and Comptroller Kevin Karnes highlighted fraud prevention as one of his campaign issues.
Karnes said it can be far too easy for individuals to list properties for sale that they do not own. He said sometimes it’s up to the realtors “Spinning Senses” and just knowing something doesn’t feel right to catch these criminals.
“People don’t realize how frighteningly easy fraud can be when it comes to one’s property.” said Karnes. “In a way, as a state engine, we are conditioned not to check whether we are the rightful owners of our own property. You pay your mortgage, you have the deed, and it’s sort of done. You don’t think to check often. The first indication that something might be wrong is when you don’t receive a property invoice or TRIM notice from the tax collector or real estate appraiser. That’s usually how it starts.”
Karnes said it’s hard to say how common property fraud is in the county because there’s not yet a good way to measure it. He said more often than not, a person is posing as the homeowner, and when law enforcement investigates, they’re in the wind. It is usually the fault of the perpetrator that leads to arrests.
“It shouldn’t be that easy” said Karnes. “We have to implement barriers that make it difficult for criminals to do this.”
Karnes has worked to organize a real estate fraud task force made up of industry leaders and experts to discuss their options, determine the best way to move forward, and bring them to lawmakers. Karnes said there must be a balance between being able to detect fraud and not creating an administrative burden for offices.
He said current state law does not allow the clerk’s office to reject a document even if they know it is fraudulent.
Most transactions come via the so-called a “Cancel Deed of Claim” — a simple document with very little information required. It doesn’t even have to include a description of the property.
Karnes said his office is looking for four things: a grantee, a grantee, a witness and a notary.
“I can refuse if any of these conditions are missing, but if the signature was fraudulent or if the notary’s stamp was fraudulent, I technically have no legal authority to refuse this document.” he said. “Once the document is in the system, that’s the change of ownership. There are very few I can turn down. I can look at a document and know it’s fake, and I’d be shaky whether or not to reject it. There is no law that says the clerk “shall” disapprove of fraud.
“Well I guess that’s right because as an office I’m a record keeper. We are not here to say what is right and what is wrong. One of my most appealing ideas for curbing this is that when filing Quit Claim Deeds in the official records, you also submit a copy of ID for the grantee and the grantee. So if fraud is alleged, I can make these records available for law enforcement to investigate.”
Karnes said his office is unable to verify signatures. One of the precautions he wants to take with the Legislature is that if the Returning Officer can verify signatures for voting, why can’t the Clerk’s office do the same. Keep in mind that any changes made to the office would apply statewide, so the task force keeps in mind what can work for all counties across Florida.
“I have to weigh what this will do for employees across the state with the community issue we have now.” said Karnes.
Karnes said many of these fraudulent land issues come from overseas. He sees property in the county, with the owners in France and notarized documents in South Africa.
“Real estate professionals see it out there” said Karnes. “You see something is wrong. The clerk may or may not be able to do this. I’m just a record holder. I don’t really want to say what cheating is or isn’t, I just don’t want to make it easy for criminals. Nobody thought stealing property would be so easy.”
Karnes hopes the task force he’s created can work with Florida lawmakers, who he says need to be involved and hear the concerns of communities involved with the issue.
He added that local real estate agents are aware of the widespread nature of these crimes and have taken many extra precautions to ensure sellers are who they say they are before proceeding.
“It’s real estate professionals who pay attention to those details and are comfortable saying something doesn’t feel right.” said Karnes. “Law enforcement only steps in after the fact, and it’s difficult to get your property back when that happens.”
For homeowners, Karnes’ office has a free service called “Real Estate Fraud Alert” a registration warning system that warns when a document has been filed.
“You will be notified within 24 hours of submitting a document if you have a problem.” said Karnes.
Visit www.Leeclerk.org/propertyfraud to register.
Karnes added that homeowners can go to public websites like Zillow and claim their own property.
– Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj