Miami’s historic West Grove neighborhood has recently become a hot real estate market. So hot, in fact, that it has attracted the attention of scammers. It wasn’t always so. Shirley Gibson’s family has owned property in West Grove since her great-grandmother immigrated from the Bahamas over 100 years ago. Now in her 80s, Shirley had hoped to pass on the property to her niece and nephew. But when Shirley goes to pay her taxes one day, she learns that her property has been sold without her knowledge for $230,000. When another of her properties shows up on Zillow, it becomes clear this is not a fluke but an elaborate real estate scam, targeting property owners in this historically Black neighborhood.
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] Phil Prazan: Coconut Grove is one of the older neighborhoods in the city. There's a specific area historically known as the Black Grove. It was an African American community, that has a really long and deep and strong roots in the culture of Miami.
[00:00:21] (news clip): The economic crimes unit in the Miami Police Department is investigating a new case of financial real estate fraud.
[00:00:26] Phil Prazen: This vacant lot in Coconut Grove has been in Shirley Gibson's family her entire life.
[00:00:31] Shirley Gibson: I'm distraught from all of this, that I have to fight to keep my property.
[00:00:38] Bob: Imagine you own a small slice of property. It's nothing magnificent. It's just an empty lot but it's your empty lot. Your little piece of earth. It's been in your family for generations, and it's been handed down to you by your parents. You expected to leave it to a family member one day, then suddenly, you’re told it's not yours anymore. It's been bought and sold to a development company in New York. This sounds unreal, but it's happening. Today's guest went through this very real estate nightmare but didn't take it lying down. And when she fights back, well, dozens of other victims come forward too, and the hunt it on for the criminals.
[00:01:24] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host Bob Sullivan. And today's story brings us to sunny Miami, to historic Coconut Grove, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, a tropical oasis that's south of South Beach, a place founded by artists, intellectuals, pioneers, and adventurers in the 19th century. The Grove is a little Bahamian and a little Bohemian. Inside the Grove is West Grove, a black majority neighborhood undergoing a dramatic renaissance, gentrification which means empty lots are hard to come by and valuable -- really, really valuable. So valuable that certain kinds of people are attracted to the market. Local journalist Phil Prazan, of Miami's NBC affiliate has witnessed the dramatic activity.
[00:02:15] Phil Prazan: South Florida is one of the fraud capitals of the country. It's a land of easy money and fast deals. You get kind of used to all types of weird, strange, unique stories. Being a reporter in South Florida, this was just another, you don’t want to call it another day, but it kind of was.
[00:02:39] Bob: Prazan is an investigative reporter, so he knows a good tip when he hears one. And in this case, the tip comes from a source who works in real estate at a title insurance company. He's seen some really weird, strange property sales coming across his desk. Someone, or some set of people is trying to sell properties they don't own to unsuspecting buyers.
[00:03:03] Phil Prazan: He reached out to us and said, "Hey, I have three properties that are trying to be sold, and they all have the same picture on their ID with different names." So, this is strange. And we think that there's some type of fraud going on, and it's not just us, right, like this is obviously kind of a wide net, and we're just spotting it.
[00:03:30] Bob: It's a bold crime selling properties you don't own. How is that even possible? And the idea that many title insurance companies are fighting this, well, it sounds like something is really going on. Prazan decides to start pulling on the threads of this story. Owners who were victims, well, they have no idea any of this is happening.
[00:03:51] Phil Prazan: I was more just curious of how this all worked. We went and talked to one of the homeowners whose name is Alfred Thomas who did not really know this was all happening, that somebody was trying to sell or to buy his property without him knowing about it. So that was the first one. And then we started calling all of the phone numbers that were associated with these IDs. We found all these Zillow accounts and, and we began notifying the property owners and doing follow-up stories on this, and you know, two of these property owners that we notified; we said, "Hey, your property is on the market. Do you know? And are you selling?" And they said, "No, this is, this is not me. This is a fraud."
[00:04:39] Bob: As Phil starts to call other potential victims, the conversations become more alarming. One victim even thinks Phil must be the criminal.
[00:04:48] Phil Prazan: One that sticks out to me in particular, you know, they didn't believe me. They, they thought that I was the scammer. They're like, sure, yeah, yeah. You know it's, it's, this must be some type of joke, right? And then we were just like, "Hey listen. Go on the Miami-Dade County registry and see online that you are no longer the owner of this vacant lot. And then call me back. Go verify for yourself. It's all right there." And then, you know, we'd hang up, and then they'd call me back in 15 minutes, and they go, "Okay. What's going on?"
[00:05:23] Bob: These weren't just Zillow ads, these were transactions that were, at least some of them were already completed.
[00:05:28] Phil Prazan: Yes, so the original story I did, did not go through. It was caught at the last minute by the owner and the title insurance company. Then we notified two others that already happened.
[00:05:40] Bob: Properties, empty lots, all over Miami being sold right out from underneath their owners? This is no paperwork headache, no joke. The county website shows there's a new owner. Still confused about what might be going on, Phil hears from another source who is going to help fill out the whole picture.
[00:05:59] Phil Prazan: And then like that same week, David Winker who's a contact of mine uh just from, you know, reporting in Miami, called me and said, "Hey, I have this really interesting case. There's this elderly woman named Shirley Gibson and someone's trying to sell her property without her knowing about it." And I was like, "You have no idea. I've been down this rabbit hole all the time. This is a much bigger deal than I think you are aware of, and I was aware of." So it, it is a, it is happening all over the city of Miami, and probably South Florida. So that's how I got to the Shirley Gibson case, kind of just covering that similar topic.
[00:06:42] Bob: And that's how we get to Coconut Grove. Shirley Gibson is an 80 something year old firebrand, a retired librarian, a community leader who still hosts meetings on her empty lot in town. The family has lived there since her great-grandmother immigrated from the Bahamas.
[00:06:59] Shirley Gibson: The area that I lived in is called Coconut Grove, but now it's known as West Grove where the Blacks live. And my grandfather came to this country in 1904 and my great-grandmother came in 1879. Now the property that's I'm having problems with now...
[00:07:25] Bob: This property means a lot to your family, right?
[00:07:27] Shirley Gibson: Yeah, it’s been in the family over 100 years.
[00:07:31] Bob: Through the years, Shirley's family was lucky enough to own a couple of lots in West Grove, and while her childhood home no longer stands, the empty lots are still in her family.
[00:07:41] Shirley Gibson: They're, they're vacant lots, and they're each 50 x 100, 50 x 111. I think that's the standard lot size in that area. 50 x 100.
[00:07:54] Bob: The lot that begins this twisted tale is actually the plot of earth where Shirley lived as a child.
[00:08:00] Shirley Gibson: It's full of greenery, trees, which I like to see the trees and the grass.
[00:08:05] Bob: How far away from your empty lot do you live?
[00:08:09] Shirley Gibson: Oh I live about maybe about 30 minutes or 40 minutes away.
[00:08:15] Bob: So do you just drive by every once in a while to have a look at the trees and the grass?
[00:08:19] Shirley Gibson: Well I try to go over every week two or three times to the neighborhood. Because I still do business in that area. And I ride by the lots.
[00:08:29] Bob: Is there a single word that comes to mind when you, when you look at the property when you drive by?
[00:08:34] Shirley Gibson: I'm just happy that I still own them. I own the property. At one time there were all houses on there because my grandfather had maybe about 16 to 20 parcels of lots at one time. But over the years when he retired, he started selling them, the houses to Black people.
[00:08:56] Bob: And so yours had a house on it at one point?
[00:08:58] Shirley Gibson: Yeah, yeah, uh-huh. I lived there for almost 40 years and my father was born there in 1911.
[00:09:07] Bob: Oh wow.
[00:09:08] Shirley Gibson: He lived there until he died in '80--, '86. 1986.
[00:09:13] Bob: So at some point the house was, was old and, and removed or...
[00:09:18] Shirley Gibson: Yeah, yeah. And I got a lot of problems from the, from the city inspectors, so I just demolished them, and another one I, I sold.
[00:09:29] Bob: Still, the vacant lots mean a lot to Shirley and her family. They represent generational wealth. Someday, she expects her nieces and nephews to inherit the land, that's why what happens when she goes to pay her taxes is so distressing.
[00:09:45] Shirley Gibson: I went online to check the amount that was due, and that's when I saw a company in Brooklyn, New York, with their name on one piece of property.
[00:09:58] Bob: So you go online to pay your taxes, and, and it says someone else in New York owns your property? What did, what did, what was that like? How did that feel?
[00:10:08] Shirley Gibson: Well, I went down to the tax office to pay the taxes although I saw that on there, and when I gave her the tax bill for one piece of property, she said, "The taxes have been paid." And I said, "No, I did not pay them, and I did not give anyone authority to pay the taxes." And then she spoke to her supervisor, and they came up with a fraud, fraudulent warranty deed. And I said I did not sign that.
[00:10:39] Bob: I've seen a copy of this deed. It sure looks real. It says, quote, "On this 4th day of March 2021, Shirley Gibson hereby grants, sells, conveys, and confirms unto the grantee all that certain land." It says Shirley granted the property to someone else who then sold it to the New York company for $230,000. Staring at the fake deed, the then obviously fake signature, Shirley walks out of the tax office confused, frustrated, not knowing what to do. She calls one attorney she knows. He's busy. So she heads over to West Grove where by coincidence, she plans to attend a community meeting later that day. It turns out that's the best thing that happened to Shirley on this dark day.
[00:11:28] Shirley Gibson: Luckily, the neighbors in Coconut Grove have a little organization that Mr. Winker is the attorney, and luckily, we were having a meeting that, that weekend. When I went to the meeting, I told Mr. Winker that I'd like to speak to him after the meeting.
[00:11:47] Bob: Mr. Winker is lawyer David Winker, the source who knows journalist Phil Prazan. David is in the neighborhood that night for a meeting. He's been helping with West Grove legal issues for years.
[00:11:58] David Winker: So I was in a community meeting, I happened to be there on a, on another issue, and she was upset, visibly upset to the point of where I thought there was a physical problem like she was having a health issue. And I took her by the hand, I know her, and I, you know, she's a very articulate 80-year-old. Um, she's very with it. She has a great mind, and former librarian, retired librarian, and she wasn't acting normal. And I was like, what is wrong? Are you okay? And she said, "Something terrible happened to me today. I'll have to tell you about it afterwards."
[00:12:32] Bob: So Shirley tells him about the tax office, about the deed the official there actually showed her with her fake signature on it.
[00:12:39] David Winker: The reason she found out about it was she went to pay her taxes in person, with a cashier's check, like she does every year, and the person said, "Your taxes have already been paid." "There must be some mistake. I haven't paid the taxes." "Well they've been paid." The officer goes back, the taxpayer goes back and comes back and says, "Listen, you no longer own this property." And they gave her a copy of the fake deed, right, the fraudulent deed. They were just like, good luck old lady.
[00:13:12] Bob: David had known Shirley a long time, knew her to be smart and level-headed, so he knew something must be terribly wrong.
[00:13:20] David Winker: Shirley is like a really important person. I mean she's kind of a, you know, she's a prominent person in that neighborhood who I had worked with over the years. We had worked in the past on different things like celebrating certain heritage, African American heritage issues, and she's kind of a, the resident historian um, on different things. So we would bring her in to speak to things, to educate us as to things. In this specific case, it had to do with a, they were going to put a, an Airbnb up, they were going to commercial a couple lots and she and many of the neighbors were opposed to it, so I was working with the neighborhood to kind of have our voice heard in front of the city commission regarding the zoning change that the developer was asking for.
[00:14:07] Bob: So not only did Shirley have friends, allies, she had a better understanding of real estate than many people might.
[00:14:13] David Winker: I think she was very, how do you put it, like surprised, you know, like that they would go after her. And honestly, you know, like she had the wherewithal to go after, to fight back. Does that make sense, like she, you know, they, they messed with the wrong lady.
[00:14:30] Bob: The first thing David does is march Shirley right to the police station to make sure the police believe there's a problem and make sure he gets a police report.
[00:14:38] David Winker: Well the police and the State Attorney can do 100 things more than I can. When you need law enforcement, you need law enforcement. We went to the police station and I'm sitting with Ms. Gibson, and the first thing I said to Ms. Gibson was, "Give me all your credit cards and ID." And she's looking at me like, what? And it was like, "No, no, I need, like I want to go show this police officer, you know, behind this glass thing, like this is not your signature." And it, it sounds funny, but like you know, I had a great-grandma and Ms. Gibson's handwriting is that old-fashioned like, it looks like somebody who had signed the, the Declaration of Independence.
[00:15:15] Bob: (chuckles)
[00:15:16] David Winker: This big, loopy, beautiful cursive, and it looked like it was signed by my 8-year-old. You know, Shirley Gibson in block letters. And I wanted to show the cop from the beginning like this is so clearly fraud.
[00:15:30] Bob: Yes, the signature on the fake deed looks childlike, looks nothing like Shirley's signature. And the police take a report. Still, that's not going to get Shirley her property back. As David gets back to his office and starts to research what happened, he finds out that this is much more than a paperwork slip-up or a recording error. Someone made money, a lot of money off the sale of Shirley's property.
[00:15:58] David Winker: I immediately called the company that had closed the loan. There was a, a name on a deed, you know, who pre--, it says "prepared by..." And there was the company, and I called the company, and you know the, the president called me back and immediately sent an email to everybody involved and was like, "Hey, there's something wrong here. We're being told this is a fraud." In this case they sold to, you know, someone who impersonated Ms. Gibson and sold the property to an innocent third party. The way that this went down was, they received a deed, you know by FedEx, and then they sent out a cashier's check, right, a cashier's check. So you know, they were out real money, right, this, this company's out real money.
[00:16:47] Bob: So someone was able to collect $230,000 from the sale of Shirley's land. The land she grew up on, that her father grew up on. And Shirley never received so much as a phone call or a text message. Meanwhile, as David starts to research the legal options, Shirley makes another shocking discovery. That lot is not her only lot the criminals are targeting.
[00:17:12] Bob: You know, my understanding is that while you were going through all this, you went online, and you saw that another property that you own was also for sale on Zillow?
[00:17:20] Shirley Gibson: Yes. I'm also fortunate to have a neighbor in that area who, he discovered it, that piece of property. And he's a friend of, of David's. And that's how I found out about the other piece of property.
[00:17:37] Bob: So he calls you and says, "Hey, did you know you're, this other thing is happening too? Is that what happened?
[00:17:41] Shirley Gibson: Yes, it's on uh, Zillow.
[00:17:43] Bob: Yeah. So what do you think now? Do you feel like you're being attacked by these criminals who are trying to steal your properties?
[00:17:51] Shirley Gibson: Yes. I, I do. I, I am a little upset about it. But then I said, it's fortunate that it happened to me because I jumped on it immediately.
[00:18:04] Bob: David is scrambling to help Shirley at this point. But she is surprisingly calm about the whole thing. You can hear it in Shirley's voice even now.
[00:18:14] Bob: But I'm just trying to picture, I mean I would shocked, I would be stunned. I would be sick to my stomach if, if I saw something like that happen to me.
[00:18:22] Shirley Gibson: Well, I'm a calm person.
[00:18:25] Bob: Calmer than me (chuckles).
[00:18:28] Shirley Gibson: And I leave it in the hands of an higher authority.
[00:18:33] Bob: While David admires Shirley's patience, he is not able to stay quite so calm. He decides he needs to make sure the theft of Shirley's property gets the attention it deserves. So he reaches out to Phil Prazan, the TV journalist. And that's when the size of the problem starts to come into focus.
[00:18:54] Phil Prazan: When David told me that, you know, his, he's, his client was trying to get her property back, and I said, well, you know, we've been working on this similar issues for the last you know, couple weeks. So yeah, does she want to talk? So and he said, of course. Yeah, I said, "David, this is way bigger than Shirley Gibson." You know, this is happening. And, and before that actually the City of Miami Police told us that they were investigating 50 similar cases. And Shirley Gibson was just one of them.
[00:19:27] Bob: But with Shirley's story, this crime wave has gone one step farther. It's become far more serious. So Phil takes a camera crew to West Grove to meet Shirley at her property. Well, the property that is supposed to be hers.
[00:19:42] Phil Prazan: When I walked up, she was sitting down on kind of like a, a stoop that is next to her property, 'cause she is a, a little older. So she stood up and shook my hand and said hello, and she was wearing a mask because it was COVID, and, and I was wearing a mask, and our photographer was wearing a mask. And then, you know, we chatted for a little bit, and then she, you know, she sat back down on the, on the stoop and at first glance, she seems very softspoken, right. She doesn't raise her voice; she just speaks matter of factly. And you know, that has a certain strength to it, you know, it's just, this is the situation, and this is what we're going to do about it, and this is what happened, and this is what I learned. And this is, these are the steps that we're taking next. I got the impression like she had, you know, seen a thing or two in her day.
[00:20:33] Bob: (laugh) Um, but, but so you said she was concerned, but, but she was also kind of on the matter of fact, you know, we're going to, we're going to fix this sort of frame of mind.
[00:20:42] Phil Prazan: Absolutely. I mean she was very determined, and she seemed to understand the process of how to fight back, and she was in that process of doing it.
[00:20:52] Bob: And Phil is sure Shirley isn't fight just for herself, she's fighting for her neighbors, for justice, for history. The vast majority of victims are Black families.
[00:21:05] Phil Prazan: Coconut Grove is one of the older neighborhoods in the city. And, you know, there's a specific area called the, you know, historically known as the Black Grove, right. It was a, it was an African American community, that has a really long and deep and strong roots in the culture of Miami. And over, over the years it has been, you know, gentrified, if you will, people have been coming in and purchasing the old land, and buying fancier houses with it, you know, or, or building fancier houses with it, and so I think that's why, for the African American community to own property in the Black Grove, in Coconut Grove, is so important, right, because it is holding onto what's left of their historical heritage in that neighborhood. And we found that, you know, in these other cases of vacant lot frauds, they're all, nearly all elderly, nearly all African American, and they all say that owning property is important to us so we can pass it down to our children and their children's children, because it's all about building generational wealth for them. Miami has a history of segregation and a hist--, you know it's, its Florida, but it's still the South. So there, there is a history of racial conflict and, and I think people in the Black community really feel like that owning property and passing it down through generational wealth is a way to overcome some of those hurdles.
[00:22:52] Bob: So, Phil and Shirley go public with the story. It topped the news on May 17th.
[00:22:58] (news clip): The economic crimes unit in the Miami Police Department is investigating a new case of financial real estate fraud.
...that is part of an increase in that type of crime. NBC 6 investigators have covered since the pandemic began. NBC 6 investigator Phil Prazan has this latest case.
We've reported on these vacant lot scams several times this spring. This deal actually went through, and it is a pain for those involved.
This vacant lot in Coconut Grove has been in Shirley Gibson's family her entire life. She intended to pass it onto her niece and nephew.
So that Blacks will have some property in West Grove. For me, it's been disturbing. I'm distraught from all of this, that I have to fight to keep my property.
[00:23:46] Bob: Does Shirley get her land back? What happens to the $230,000 that someone got paid selling her property? And what about the other 50 victims? And what happens to the criminals and to the neighborhood, and could this happen to you? That's next week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:24:15] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree, and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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