Home fraud ‘is out of control.’ Inside the crackdown that just led to two arrests – Sun Sentinel

The homeowners are dead. But their true heirs have been stiffed out of their rightful inheritance in an elaborate effort to steal entire houses in South Florida, investigators say.

Authorities on Monday arrested two women they say got control of two homes in Cooper City by using forged and falsified documents. The women profited by $510,000 for the sale of the homes, investigators said.

Officials waited for the suspects, Samantha Johnson, 57, and Sandra Shea, 56, both of Cooper City, to show up at the county government center in downtown Fort Lauderdale. There, the women had requested an appearance at the property appraiser’s office to dispute a tax charge. Then the net came down: Both women were handcuffed and led away.

Fraud investigators with the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office pledged this is just the beginning, with more arrests expected. Every day, they hear from more people who tell of strangers trying to claim their family’s home.

Investigators say Johnson and Shea identified the homes of dead people and then gained control of the homes through probate court.

In one of the cases, they persuaded a rightful heir to take a fraction of what the home was really worth, and never paid him anything, investigators say. In the second case, they convinced a man who had just been released from prison — and who had the same last name as a homeowner — that he was an heir, which he wasn’t, and he took a small cut of the sale, investigators say.

The woman face charges of scheme to defraud, elderly exploitation and grand theft. The names of their defense attorneys — or whether they’ve obtained them — weren’t available Monday.

Mike Fisten, a fraud investigator for Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office, said he identified 67 homes throughout the state that these women unlawfully obtained worth millions of dollars. He said 21 of them are past the statute of limitations to prosecute. The Broward Sheriff’s office was the arresting agency Monday.

Ron Cacciatore, a former Broward sheriff’s captain, now oversees fraud investigations for the property appraiser’s office. The problem exists far beyond these two women, saying people are “preying on our minority community and our elderly and our deceased.”

“It’s disturbing,” he said. “We have to stop this.”

But he acknowledges it probably can’t be stopped. So fraud detectives just have to try to put a dent in it. He keeps a map in his office with pictures of more than two dozen houses that the women own.

Generally, here’s how people carry out heists: They access public records online to identify homes that have unpaid property taxes, in hopes there’s not the rightful owner still living there, or search obituaries for people who have died, investigators say. Then they seek out heirs, often the same types of people.

“They were always elderly and lived out of state,” Fisten said. “They target heirs who don’t have a lot and are vulnerable.” Or they seek out false heirs who will go along with the ruse, he said. Then they convince the heirs or fake heirs to sign over the house.

Fisten said he has had cases where people were nearly evicted from their own home after people convinced a probate judge that the property was theirs when it wasn’t. In most cases, the theft involves the property of people who have died, and their elderly heirs are less likely to pursue complaints.

“They’re smart,” Cacciatore said. “Can you imagine [someone] stealing your grandmother’s house? … This is out of control.”

Robert “Sonny” Shaffer recalls how his family received a phone call out of nowhere, with an offer to help wade through government bureaucracy. Shaffer, of Baltimore, didn’t know when his cousin had died alone with a home in Cooper City. There were eight cousins who were the rightful heirs.

The family got a call from a woman who promised the family $40,000 in exchange for signing over the house through a quit claim deed, he said. The house needed a ton of work, Johnson told the family, according to investigators. Their deceased relative was living in “squalor” and the fines were continuing to mount, they were told.

But investigators say Johnson started to walk away from her end of the deal: She told Shaffer there was no money left after she transferred the house to another investor, according to the arrest report. Among her expenses: $25,000 for a new roof, which never happened, according to the arrest report.

“This is just not a project I can handle right now,” she texted him, according to the report.

In March, Johnson called Shaffer, telling him, “I had to cut my losses, sorry take care,” the report said.

He wasn’t told the house had been sold. Property records show the home on Southwest 93rd Avenue sold for $210,000. Fisten said the $99,000 lien was picked up by the person who bought the home from Johnson — even though Johnson told Shaffer she couldn’t get the city to drop the fines.

Shaffer never got the $40,000, he said. “I feel betrayed,” Shaffer, 86, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I feel foolish, I feel scammed.”

There are eight fraud investigators working in the property appraiser’s office on homestead and deed, but it’s not nearly enough, officials say. So Broward’s Property Appraiser Marty Kiar said he’ll ask the state Department of Revenue to approve the funding for two new fraud investigators dedicated solely to working with prosecutors “in building criminal cases against people doing this.”

Then, as part of the funding process, he’ll appear before the County Commission on June 7 for the new positions concentrated on deed fraud.

“This is not welcome here in Broward County,” Kiar said of the focus on property crime. “Cracking down on title fraud has been a big priority of mine.”

Last year, he launched “Owner Alert” to notify residents if the county office gets paperwork changing property ownership. It doesn’t prevent the fraud from happening, but alerts rightful owners within 24 hours by email if there’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up before it’s too late.

Kiar said he began pursuing the idea after a Hollywood couple forged documents to claim ownership of $17 million worth of real estate in New York and Florida.

Using a fraudulent deed indicating that the property belonged to New York Mortgage Corp., the couple evicted a resident from their home in Hollywood with help from police in 2015, federal officials said. They also changed the locks on the property.

In this latest unrelated case, Johnson and Shea have had run-ins with the legal system in the past. They were indicted in federal court last year on charges of violating the federal law restricting release of medical information.

Prosecutors allege in court files that Shea was working at Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood as a secretary from 2012 through 2016, where she had access to patients’ personal information including Social Security numbers and dates of death.

The indictment alleges they used the information “to obtain leads and contact information” in 22 instances to get title for their companies.

The women pleaded guilty. And in March, Johnson was sentenced to 30 months in prison, and Shea received two years, and a $10,000 fine. They were scheduled to turn themselves in to start their federal prison sentence next week.

Monday’s new criminal charges are in state court, which is a different jurisdiction.

Fisten said the two Cooper City homes — the properties that are the subject of the new criminal charges — are separate addresses from the federal charges. One of the new cases came in February, just a month before their sentencing.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at [email protected] or 954-572-2008 or Twitter @LisaHuriash

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