When Shirley Gibson learns that her property in Miami’s historic West Grove neighborhood has been sold by someone using a forged deed, she is determined to fight. Working together with journalist Phil Prazen and lawyer David Winker, they uncover an elaborate real estate scam targeting dozens of elderly property owners in this historically Black neighborhood. Law enforcement is soon on the trail of the criminals, but will Shirley get her land back?
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Shirley Gibson: Well, it’s prime property, if I don’t want to sell it, then they’ll try to take it. And that’s what they did.
[00:00:10] Phil Prazen: That’s what stood out to me, it’s just like, nobody ever checked if this was a real person.
[00:00:18] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. This is part two of our story about a crazy, outlandish rash of thefts in Miami, Florida. Thefts of property sold right out from under their victims who never even know their lots have been put up for sale. If you haven't heard part one, you should go listen to that now. But to catch you up, retired librarian, Shirley Gibson, tried to pay her taxes and was told they'd already been paid ... by the new owner. As Shirley and her lawyer friend, David Winker try to figure out what's going on and how to get her property back, she discovers another lot she owns is currently up for sale. They've just contact local journalist Phil Prazen who has been talking to police about this rash of mysterious crimes, and now Phil is taking Shirley's story public.
[00:01:14] (news clip) Phil Prazen: This week when she went to pay her taxes on it, she discovered the lot was no longer in her name. A New York developer, Ollie Development LLC bought the lot for $230,000. "It was never for sale," she says, and she contacted a lawyer.
[00:01:29] Bob: Together Phil, Shirley, and David are trying to put all the pieces together. Why are residents of Shirley Gibson's neighborhood, Coconut Grove, just south of Miami being targeted? Well, Shirley will tell you the answer is pretty straightforward. Money.
[00:01:46] Bob: And you feel like there's, there's an effort to, to basically steal property from, from that neighborhood in particular, and it might be because it's largely owned by Black and the, the property gentrifying?
[00:01:58] Shirley Gibson: Well, in that area now the property value is very high, and you have developers coming in, and they’re trying to buy your property. I've got so many calls from uh different uh developers and realtors that would like to buy it. And I said, no. Well, it's prime property and if I don't want to sell it, then they'll try to take it. And that's what they did.
[00:02:23] Bob: Phil Prazen has been told by law enforcement that there are 50 other Shirley's out there. Fifty other people who had their properties put up for sale without their knowledge. As Phil interviews a handful of other victims, he starts to get a handle on what's going on, and why criminals are targeting certain kinds of properties.
[00:02:42] Phil Prazen: And remember, all of these are, seem to be vacant lots. So it's not like somebody is living in a house or living in the property where there would be some type of hoop that you would have to go through to say, oh hey, can, we saw this property on the market, can we come in and check it out, right? That doesn't exist. When you go check out a vacant lot, you just kind of drive by or it, or, and walk around it.
[00:03:08] Bob: And there's something else. Real estate deals often involve multiple layers of people, and during COVID-19, everything goes online. So it's even harder to know what's real and what's fraud. Even easier for someone to sell a property they don't actually own.
[00:03:27] Phil Prazen: Somebody would reach out to a real estate agent and say, hey, I have this property I want to sell, it's a vacant lot on X Street, can you help me sell it? And they, the real estate agent goes, sure, you know. And you know, send me your ID, send me your paperwork, uh online, because we can't meet in person because of COVID. And so you know, maybe that real estate agent goes, hey, well hey, it doesn't specialize in vacant lots, or doesn't special--, or is too busy, right, 'cause this at a time when um, the real estate market in South Florida was really going nuts. So say that real estate agent loops in another real estate agent friend who maybe worked for a bigger company that purchases en masse these vacant lots. They are looking for masses of property to, to turn. And so, you know, these companies, these buyers could be working with multiple real estate agents who are part of the deal of just through kind of word of mouth, and they all get their commissions, and nobody had actually done the due diligence to check if this is an actual, the real owner on the other end of the deal. And that's what stood out to me, it's just like, nobody ever checked if this was a real person.
[00:04:52] Bob: Nobody ever checked to see if this is a real person. As lawyer David Winker begins to learn more about the crime, he's pretty surprised at how easy it is.
[00:05:03] David Winker: When I talk with people about this, when they ask that question, like how can this possibly happen, like you kind of have to do some background into our system. So if people from other countries, when they come and purchase a property here, they cannot believe how easy it is, right, how user-friendly it is, how everything's online. And I think one of the things that happens is because of the ease and transparency and the technological basis of how we transact property, they, there's a downside, and the downside is a lot of private information’s available publicly. You know, here in Florida, if you own a home, I can look up your home, I can see, do you own it with your wife? Do you own it individually? What's your mortgage, you know, all that information is publicly available. So the downside of that, right, is that yes, there's a lot of good things that go with that, but the downside of that is, you know, scammers and criminals and conmen can use that to their advantage.
[00:06:02] Bob: In Shirley's case, the criminal used publicly available information to write up the fake deed that convinced county criminals she had signed over her property to the criminals. The deed is indeed fake, but it looks real to the County Recorder mainly because it's notarized by a legal notary, and it has what looks like a real seal. Perhaps the notary is in on it. At least it looks that way, especially when authorities track down the notary in Africa.
[00:06:37] David Winker: And it got crazy 'cause the notary happened to be in, oh my God, Morocco.
[00:06:43] Shirley Gibson: Yes.
[00:06:44] David Winker: On a trip. So it looks so suspicious, right? Like this guy just happens to leave, he's out of the country, it's the middle of COVID, like why is he going to Morocco? And he, luckily for him, you know was able to show like that's not my stamp. I think his wife went to the office and grabbed the stamp to show the police, right, like this is his stamp. It has a palm tree instead of a capital building. But basically, was able to show like this is not me.
[00:07:01] Bob: Beyond the ability to use fake notary seals, to use publicly available information, there are other reasons that Shirley's property and other empty lots like it are vulnerable.
[00:07:26] David Winker: Most of the cases involved almost all, involve elderly people. And the reason why is, older people have property that doesn't have mortgages. Younger people, even wealthy younger people tend to have a mortgage on their property. And the banks have systems in place that the minute you transact a property that secures one of their loans, they know about it, they fight back.
[00:07:53] Bob: Sales that involve properties without mortgages are much, much simpler. There's a lot less friction that can happen more quickly. So it's easier to commit fraud. Phil hears this too from victim after victim, and it seems like the criminals are relentless.
[00:08:12] Phil Prazen: And one of the people in the middle, he told us that this had actually been the third time that it had happened to him. So this was, you know, over the course of a year and a half, these scammers were trying to get his property on the market, and he caught them two times, or stopped them two times, and then when we called them the third time, it had already happened.
[00:08:36] Bob: The crime becomes so prevalent that area residents take the extraordinary step, and I mean really extraordinary step, of putting up "Not for Sale" signs on their front yards. Yep, you know what "Home for Sale" signs look like. These are "Not for Sale" signs. Shirley has to put one up on her lot.
[00:08:57] David Winker: I got my 70-year-old mother to come to make me a sign that says, "Lot Not For Sale." You know we put it, because one of her other lots was on Zillow, and we put a sign in case someone drove by to check the property, they would see it.
[00:09:11] Bob: So if I drive through Coconut Grove, I'm going to see a bunch of signs that say, "Lot Not For Sale"?
[00:09:16] David Winker: Yeah, I'll send you, you know what I'll do, I'll send you a picture. I'll send you a picture today.
[00:09:20] Bob: By the time Phil put Shirley and her lawyer David Winker on television, well the empty lot crime is surging.
[00:09:27] (news clip) Phil Prazen: This week when she went to pay her taxes on it, she discovered the lot was no longer in her name. A New York developer, Ollie Development LLC, bought the lot for $230,000. "It was never for sale," she says, and she contacted a lawyer.
[00:09:43] Bob: And after the piece airs, calls to Phil, the reporter, start to pile up, all from victims who learn someone is trying to sell their property. But they don't know what to do.
[00:09:54] Bob: What do you do as an owner in that situation? How overwhelming.
[00:09:58] Phil Prazen: You know I, we just sympathize and see if they want to talk about it and then you know guide them to the resources that, if they want to. You know, you say, hey, the City of Miami is looking into a bunch of these cases. Contact them, and then also talk to your real estate agent, your title insurance companies, and see if you can figure it out.
[00:10:20] Bob: So often in these situations, reports to law enforcement seem futile. Remember, Shirley Gibson's property was sold to a company in New York for $230,000, real money. But sold by who? As David investigates, he shares what he finds with police, I'm not sure anything will come out of it. But then, a few weeks later, breaking news.
[00:10:45] Anchor: (news clip) Well, now to a series of scams tonight. NBC 6 investigators have reported on all spring. Three people are now behind bars accused of selling homes they did not own. NBC 6 investigator, Phil Prazen, shows us what local leaders are doing to stop the scammers.
[00:11:00] Phil Prazen: (news clip) Lathan Powell, Vanessa Chang, Jason Webley are charged with a long list of felonies including money laundering, theft from a person 65 years or older, conspiracy, and others.
[00:11:12] Bob: Police deserve credit for hunting down Shirley's criminals, certainly. But Prazen thinks Shirley deserves credit for keeping up the pressure.
[00:11:21] Phil Prazen: Yes, you know that that is something that police have told me through this whole process is, we don't even, the police don't even know if, if many of these scammers are in the state of Florida. They don't even know if they're in the country, right. I mean, because everything is going online, they can be in Uzbekistan, in South Africa, in Japan, you know, it, and it's hard to trace the scammers. It's hard to catch them, and I really do think that the reason we have arrests for this one is because Shirley Gibson just didn't give up and wasn't going to be one of those victims, and that's where she hired a lawyer, she notified the press, which gets attention to the issue. We then, in the press, then calls, you know, police, prosecutors and said, hey, what are you doing about this? So, the more noise you make, the better chance you have of catching the criminals -- from my experience.
[00:12:28] Bob: That's very inspiring, actually, that, that she would be so dogged and, and that's the reason, a big part of the reason we actually uh caught criminals in this case. That's really impressive.
[00:12:38] Phil Prazen: Yeah, she's, she's an impressive person.
[00:12:43] Bob: The suspects are still awaiting trial. Meanwhile, Shirley is still awaiting return of her property.
[00:12:51] Bob: How long did it take Shirley to get her property back, whatever that means actually?
[00:12:54] David Winker: Yeah, it's something, I'll be honest with you, she doesn't have it back yet. Like we're in process. We're doing it, it's complicated because there's some tax implications. This will be the first transaction since her great grandfather had the property. We're concerned it'll trigger something with the taxes, so we're working with the Clerk's Office, with the Property Appraiser's Office, to make sure that we nullify the documents in a way that has no tax consequences. So that's what's taking so long. But because law enforcement is involved, like no one's worried that the property is going to be out of our hands, but yeah, it's, I mean it couldn't be more complicated.
[00:13:27] Bob: So for now, the signs saying, "Lot Not For Sale" stay up. Both Shirley and David believe that as long as Coconut Grove stays a hot market, criminals will be out to steal land.
[00:13:42] David Winker: I think they were just looking for a lot. The thing that makes Miami attractive is, I've done deals like this, I've been involved in, in cons, you know that involve a $15,000 lot up in the, in a rural county north of us, in Henry County, but that's not as attractive as a $300,000 lot. So you know, where are $300,000 empty lots in Miami? They tend to be in Black neighborhoods that are quickly gentrifying. So I think that's a little bit of a component of it.
[00:14:10] Bob: I mean gentrification is an issue in every American city, and gentrification seems to be one core element of this crime. That's what makes the lot attractive, a fast moving market, all that kind of thing. And it seems like systematically um, minority neighborhoods are at risk for this. Is, is that right?
[00:14:28] David Winker: Yes, and I think that's, that's a, that's a, that is an accurate summary.
[00:14:32] Bob: At the press conference announcing the arrests, state officials said they would target that element of the problem.
[00:14:38] Phil Prazen: That's certainly how the state attorney approached it when she announced the arrests, and when she announced the, the launching of the task force, that they were nearly all elderly, nearly all African American, and a lot of these buyers are from out of town, right. You know, this is a New York development company looking to purchase vacant lots in Miami, right? So it is that stereotype of outside development companies trying to purchase historically significant land, at least to the Black community here in South Florida.
[00:15:17] Bob: But this story, Shirley's story, Coconut Grove's story is far from over. I called Shirley and David one more time as we were putting together this story to check in on things, and well, Shirley's still under siege from the criminals. There was recently another attempt to steal her land. I was there when David had to tell Shirley about it.
[00:15:42] David Winker: Yeah, (inaudible), but the case is continuing to move forward. Oh, no, but let's be clear. One of her other lots is for sale right now.
[00:15:50] Bob: Oh, how about that.
[00:15:52] David Winker: On Zillow. Yeah, here's Ms. Gibson...
[00:15:54] Bob: So this a third, a third incident basically?
[00:15:57] David Winker: Yeah, no, I had to send it to Ms. Rundle, and the police are investigating another one. Let me just, let me just tell Ms. Gibson which one it is. Listen to this, Ms. Gibson, I mean I thought we, maybe we talked about this, but it's the [beep]. Is that one with the fence in the front?
[00:16:15] Shirley Gibson: No.
[00:16:16] David Winker: They have it for sale for $100,000.
[00:16:18] Shirley Gibson: That's where we have the meetings.
[00:16:20] David Winker: Yes, it's that one. That one, that's where we have our community meetings. So yeah, that one is, uh, it looks like they took it down now. I don't see it on here anymore, so...
[00:16:30] Bob: But after all this publicity and all of this, someone's still trying to make money still selling your property
[00:16:37] David Winker: Yeah, well somebody had it listed for $100,000, and they went to a neighbor, luckily, and asked the neighbor, "Hey, I'm looking to buy this lot." And you know who it was, [beep].
[00:16:51] Shirley Gibson: Oh man.
[00:16:53] David Winker: And [beep] said, "No, Ms. Gibson's not selling that lot. Be careful." And got me in touch with the person. And I asked for an email, and then I put them in touch with the cops. But yeah, that gives you an idea, Ms. Gibson's getting, you know, they're trying to victimize Ms. Gibson again. We all, we all jump back into action. You know I; I sent an email to the, the state attorney. The state attorney literally, you know, called me up and was like, "What the... like are you kidding?"
[00:17:19] Bob: Wow.
[00:17:20] David Winker: Yes, ma'am, this has been a...
[00:17:22] Bob: Well, I guess that just means you can't ever be diligent enough, right?
[00:17:25] David Winker: Crime never rests.
[00:17:27] Bob: Crime never rests. Well good people never rest either, and I can tell Ms. Gibson never rests.
[00:17:33] Bob: It's important to note that once Shirley's property records are finally put in order, and she is made whole, there's still one victim left. The title insurance company. Because the initial deal went through and was later exposed as fraudulent, the buyer will be reimbursed the $230,000 by the title insurance firm which managed the transaction. So that makes them a victim. Of course, in the end, that just means higher costs for all of us. So as with all crimes, we are all victims in some way. Winker, Shirley's lawyer, has some pretty specific advice for landholders hoping to avoid the kind of scary moment Shirley had when she went to pay her taxes that day and discovered county records showed her land now belonged to someone else.
[00:18:23] Bob: What should people look out for?
[00:18:24] David Winker: Looking for mail, for mail for other people. First sign you're going to get is all of a sudden, you're going to start getting in your mail people you don't recognize at your address. Two, look online, google your property. If it's listed on Zillow, you know you know you're, you know you know the scam is starting.
[00:18:43] Bob: So, look on Zillow once in a while to make sure nothing looks strange about your property. And certainly notice whether there's any indication that it's up for sale. Winker also thinks there needs to be additional reforms in the property sales process.
[00:18:58] David Winker: I think in this case, one of the big breakdowns was in the notary process. So in this case, the guy just forged a not--, it seems like he just forged a notary stamp to stamp it. And I wish there was a system. I've been scammed before by clients who give me a fake certified check. It's happened to me twice. You know, it sucks, 'cause you go, you take this, you know it's usually a pretty large check, you take it to the bank, and about five days later they call you and say, "Hey, you know, this check's no good." So I learned through the process that if you, if Bob, if you give me a certified check, I'm allowed to, there's a system in place that I can call and immediately speak to somebody. There's, you know, there's a number dedicated to this, and say, "I just got a check from Bob Sullivan for $25,000, check..." And they say, "What's the check number?" "Check #153." You know, a certified check, right, this is a certified check from Bank of America. "What's the check number?" "153." And they're just going to say to you immediately, yes, we issued that check or no, we didn't issue that check. And one of the fixes I think is, I think notaries, it would be helpful if you could call the notary and simply say, "I have an attestation dated September 1, 2021, by Bob Sullivan. Would you confirm that you notarized that signature?"
[00:20:23] Bob: And while there is something like a happy ending here for Shirley, Winker is worried that another victim without Shirley's resources; didn't know a lawyer, didn't have friends in the community, well another victim might not have fared so well. Phil Prazen, meanwhile, says some of Shirley's neighbors have gone to extremes to protect their empty lots.
[00:20:43] David Winker: Now the guy that had this happen to him multiple times, after we notified him, he put a small mortgage on his vacant lot just to have another hoop to jump through, right. So if somebody was trying to sell his property, they had to go talk to the bank too. That was a, I feel like a smart idea for some type of protection.
[00:21:05] Bob: After her ordeal, Shirley has practical advice to offer landowners.
[00:21:09] Shirley Gibson: Well, I would say maybe two or three times a year if you have property, you go online and check on it to see if there's any liens or anything on it.
[00:21:20] Bob: You might think Shirley's frustrated or bitter after the whole experience, but she actually remained remarkably calm, even optimistic about the situation.
[00:21:30] Bob: One thing I read uh you sound like a pretty spiritual person, and you thought that this happened to you for a reason because you had those resources, and, and maybe, you know, you can help other people because you did have uh, those resources, right?
[00:21:41] Shirley Gibson: Yes.
[00:21:41] Bob: Did I get that right?
[00:21:43] Shirley Gibson: Yes, that's true.
[00:21:44] Bob: Can you talk to me just a little bit more about why you think maybe you were in some way chosen to have this happen?
[00:21:49] Shirley Gibson: Well, I believe in divine intervention. And I said that this happened to me for a reason, whether it was good or bad. That if it's publicized, other people will not be afraid to come forward, and they probably would know what to do.
[00:22:07] Bob: That's a very beautiful sentiment that you have, and uh, we're very lucky that you're willing to walk to the press like us about it, and I agree with you. I think the more people who hear about it, the better. Well what do you think about all of the attention that the issue's now getting?
[00:22:20] Shirley Gibson: I'm happy. I'm delighted. And I thank God that I have attorney David Winker.
[00:22:27] Bob: And as for that property in West Grove, she does plan to leave it to her nieces and nephews someday, but she's not done with it yet. Remember, she grew up there in a house that has long since been demolished.
[00:22:41] Bob: Have you ever, you know, dreamed about doing something, putting a new house on them or doing something else with the property?
[00:22:46] Shirley Gibson: I would like to go back to the old, old homestead and I'm thinking about maybe building a, a house, a replica of the old house.
[00:22:54] Bob: Wow, that would be amazing.
[00:22:56] Shirley Gibson: It would. It...
[00:22:57] Bob: Well, I hope you get to do that, and I want to come see if. It sounds like such a beautiful place.
[00:23:02] Shirley Gibson: You have an invitation to come down to Coconut Grove.
[00:23:06] Bob: Well, I can't wait to go visit Shirley in her new old new home.
[00:23:22] 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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