(WSVN) - Imagine finding out that your home has been stolen from you. It may seem far-fetched, but it happens more often than you think. The Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office is fighting back like never before. Kevin Ozebek has tonight’s 7 Investigates.
Miguel Masias is fixing up this Fort Lauderdale home to sell.
He bought it as an investment, but last May, he got a phone call that shocked him.
Miguel Masias: “A detective called me one morning, telling me that somebody tried to steal my house.”
Police say Roosevelt Permenter went to the Broward County Recorder’s Office and tried to put the house in his name.
Miguel Masias: “He showed me a picture of the person who was trying to do that, and I said, ‘No, I don’t know this guy.'”
Using the court system to steal property is called title fraud.
Marty Kiar, Broward Property Appraiser: “It’s very rampant. I think South Florida is the title fraud capital of the world.”
Broward Property Appraiser Marty Kiar decided to fight the fraud, so he formed the Crimes Against Property Unit.
It’s the first of its kind in the state.
Marty Kiar: “Our Crimes Against Property Unit right now has 40 individual cases right now that they’re currently working. We’ll probably have worked about 200 this year.”
There are five detectives in the unit. They work together with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Fort Lauderdale Police and the Broward State Attorney’s Office to find title fraud cases and make arrests.
Vivian Gallinal, investigator: “I just like it. I like the analytical part, being able to solve the puzzle and just stopping, stopping them from doing this to people.”
Investigators say property thieves like to target vulnerable seniors and low-income property owners .
Marty Kiar: “They find out what their properties are, their addresses. They find out the name, and then they will make a fake deed with fake notarized signatures, they’ll walk into the record division to file that fake deed.”
Once the fake deed is filed, they are listed as the current owner of the house.
This wall of shame shows the unit’s recent arrests.
Marty Kiar: “This is an ongoing investigation right now where three people are in custody.”
These men are accused of stealing 14 Broward homes.
Detective Robert Feick, Broward Sheriff’s Office: “The amount of the properties that these people are able to compromise is surprising.”
Detective Robert Feick says the paper trails are long and complicated.
Detective Robert Feick: “We keep finding more properties under these same suspects’ names. I mean, you can keep digging on these for a long time. That’s how we come up with all these properties”
Investigators say it takes time and patience to unravel each case.
Detective Robert Feick: “It’s putting all the pieces together like a puzzle, and luckily, we have a good team where we each take a piece of that puzzle. We try to build the case, all of us together, and come to the point where we get enough to make an arrest.”
Title fraud is a serious problem, but there is a way Broward County homeowners can protect themselves.
Owner Alert is a free service which you can sign up for online that notifies a homeowner when a deed changing the ownership of a property has been filed.
Marty Kiar: “If you’re notified almost instantaneously, or maybe the day later, that that deed is filed, you’re going to take all the steps you need to make sure your title is not clouded and people can’t steal your property.”
And it gives this team of investigators a heads up, so they can get another property thief off the street.
Kevin Ozebek, 7News.
To sign up for Broward’s Owner Alert program, click here. For information on a similar program for Miami-Dade property owners, click here.
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