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? By Francisco Alvarado. Illustration by Nate Kitch.
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.
Pillaging for booty
Victor Petrescu, a Miami-based lawyer who specializes in litigating
fake title claims on behalf of lenders, said title pirates cash in on
the scam by renting out properties or fraudulently selling homes to
unsuspecting buyers until the bogus ownership claims are dismissed in
civil court and title is conveyed to the rightful owner.
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
Dead men tell no tales
Last year, the Broward sheriff’s office conducted Operation
Tomb Raider, an investigation that ended with the arrest of seven people
allegedly involved in a ring that illegally took ownership of 44 homes
from unsuspecting owners and 18 deceased owners. The properties had a
total value of $12 million and were mostly located in Coral Springs,
Margate, Tamarac, Lauderhill, Parkland and Weston.
Using various shell corporations, the ring used stolen notary
stamps and forged signatures to file fraudulent deeds and initiate
property transfers without the knowledge of the true owners, according
to arrest affidavits. Authorities alleged that ring members sometimes
sold the same home to more than one person and collected mortgage
payments from both buyers almost simultaneously. The case involved more
than 600 counts of felony fraud.
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.
Singer, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer, represented a relative of
one of the dead owners, whose Margate home the ring illegally acquired
through a fake quitclaim deed. He said his client learned about the
fraud prior to Operation Tomb Raider, but the arrests made it easier to
clear up the chain of ownership in civil court.
“The problem with this type of fraud is that the burden is on
you to prove the deed is fake,” Singer said. “It took about eight months
to get the fraudulent deed rescinded.”
Luckily, Singer had a laundry list of evidence that proved it
was a fake deed, such as the notary public agreeing to testify that she
did not stamp the document and that her signature had been forged.
“She didn’t even know anything about the deed and was willing
to assist us,” he said. “There was also a long period of time between
the date when the deed was signed and the date when it was recorded.
Typically, you file a transfer deed on the same day all parties sign
But criminal investigations are not enough of a deterrent
against some title pirates. In July, Miami-Dade state prosecutors filed
seven separate criminal cases against Dorsey, the man accused of
illegally claiming ownership to the Biscayne Park duplexes. Dorsey is
accused of forging deeds transferring title to five other residences in
El Portal, South Miami and West Kendall. He’s facing dozens of felony
counts of grand theft, organized fraud over $50,000 and unlawfully
filing false documents. Dorsey is scheduled for trial in January, and if
convicted faces a minimum of 30 years in prison.
Despite his legal troubles, Dorsey is still fighting to
maintain his alleged phony claim to Prince Barber’s properties, said
Silvia, the lawyer for her cousins.
“As it stands, the fraudulent deeds still appear as
legitimate,” Silvia said. “The deeds still have the effect of
interfering with clear ownership of the properties. No one will insure a
property under those circumstances.”
On May 15, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge entered a default
final judgement in favor of Prince Barber’s cousins after Dorsey failed
to respond to their motion dismissing his claim to the property. But in
mid-November, Dorsey, who doesn’t have a civil or criminal lawyer and is
under house arrest, petitioned the Third District Court of Appeals to
overturn the judgement, claiming he was not properly served court
documents relating to the estate’s motion for default.
“We were hoping the criminal case would help, but it has not had any
effect,” Silvia said. “Nearly 10 months later, the property has still
not been sold, and the buyer is still waiting.”
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
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