FORT LAUDERDALE -- Three people were in custody and more arrests are likely following a sweeping investigation into a $12 million real estate property theft ring in which the suspects allegedly worked together to steal people's homes, authorities said Tuesday.
Yury Domatov, Tyrone Jones and Michael Dupree have been arrested in connection with the probe, according to a written statement by the Broward County Sheriff's Office.
Each of the suspects face multiple charges, including first-degree grand theft and other crimes involving deed fraud, filing fraudulent court filings and identity theft, officials said. It was not immediately clear if bond has been set for the suspects.
Domatov was taken into custody early Tuesday around 5:30 a.m. at a home in Dania Beach. Officials say he helped spearhead a criminal enterprise with 11 others that involved at least 14 properties.
"Arrogance and the boldness of these people that they think they can get away with this," said Detective Robert Feick, who works in the Broward sheriff's and property appraiser's office.
According to the statement, the scheme began to unravel through a chance meeting between a property owner in Dania Beach who encountered the suspects who were pretending to be the property's owners.
"The absolute gravitas, for someone to come out and say they owned the property they had no interest in," Broward County Commissioner Tim Ryan said. "All because she went to the wrong address, trying to defraud somebody a block over."
The Broward County Property Appraiser's Office was alerted by Ryan about the incident, which sparked the probe, authorities said.
Unfortunately, in South Florida, we are the title fraud capital of the world. So, nothing surprises me anymore.
"He called us and said something fishy is going on," said Marty Klar, Broward's property appraiser. "Unfortunately, in South Florida, we are the title fraud capital of the world. So, nothing surprises me anymore."
Law enforcement authorities said the suspects and their alleged co-conspirators filed civil lawsuits against elderly homeowners, banks and others in order to claim ownership of property that did not belong to them.
The operation, according to officials, included filing court documents in which the suspects said the properties were dilapidated eyesores and uninhabitable, which was not the case in many instances.
Officials said the suspects targeted a 76-year-old widow who lived in Dania Beach in an attempt to steal the home she had lived in for over two dozen years. The lawsuit alleged the home was abandoned and poorly maintained when in reality it was in good condition.
Authorities said some of the lawsuits were filed against banks for bank-owned property.
But instead of serving the actual banks with the lawsuits, the lawsuits identified Dupree, a convicted felon, as the bank's agent authorized to accept service of the lawsuits on behalf of the banks.
Authorities said Dupree allegedly posed as the representative for the banks and accepted service of process at a dilapidated mobile home in Hillsborough County.
Authorities said the financial institutions that were caught up in the scam, included U.S. Bank, Deutsche Bank and Bank of Mellon, neither of which were served with these lawsuits.
The suspects then filed fraudulent court documents posing as representatives of the banks and others in which they would tell the court that they did not want the properties.
In other cases, after fraudulently accepting service of process allegedly on behalf of the banks, they never filed responsive pleadings.
As a result, the courts awarded the properties to the suspects.
In most cases, the banks never even knew these properties were stolen from under them or taken over by the trio of alleged criminals and their co-conspirators. In at least three cases, the three main subjects moved in and made these properties their homes.
Said Klar: "They pick on our most vulnerable. They pick on seniors. They pick on people in low-income communities. They pick on people they can pick on where they can best get away with it. And it's usually people in the direst straits."
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