In a macabre scam, thieves steal homes of the recently deceased, so Broward County’s top appraiser will start to coordinate with the Medical Examiner’s office.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A new alliance is stepping up in the fight to stop thieves from stealing the homes of people who’ve recently died.
Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office has teamed up with the county’s Office of Medical Examiner and Trauma Services to start sharing notes about property owners who’ve died, and amass a tower of information to crack down on property theft. When thieves strike, investigators say, it’s the true heirs who are stiffed out of their rightful inheritance.
And it’s the dead and their properties that are “the easiest prey” – with thieves figuring it’d be less likely they’ll be caught, Broward Property Appraiser Marty Kiar said.
“I think it’s disgusting what these people do to the most vulnerable people in our communities,” Kiar said. “I’m so passionate about holding them accountable, making sure they can’t defraud the great people of Broward County anymore.”
To protect the estates of the dead, the two offices are planning to use new software that allows the agencies to share – and immediately flag – potential issues. Those who’ve died, who owned property and whose remains are unclaimed, will have their estates flagged for potential theft.
While the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office has long investigated homestead fraud, Kiar assembled a new team of detectives in 2022 to snuff out deed fraud.
Scammers have taken over houses using fraudulent quit claim deeds or fraudulent liens or fake wills, and have forced rightful owners out the door of their own homes by posing as the owners in court.
Detectives have had cases before of dead people whose properties were sought out. In one case last year, investigators say two women identified the homes of dead people and then gained control of the homes through probate court.
Prosecutors stated in court files that one of them 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.
Using public records
People have relied on Florida’s public records law to seek information about the recently deceased who may not have heirs, Kiar said. Residents with no known interest or connection to someone who died have asked questions: They may request the paid invoice for cremation on somebody’s unclaimed remains, which was possibly found from cross-checking unpaid property taxes. Such queries drew the Medical Examiner’s Office’s attention.
“They found it very odd, even lawyers were calling and wanting public records,” Kiar said. “It was very strange, people not related in any way to these folks were inquiring.”
The Medical Examiner’s Office has an investigations team tasked with tracking down the families of people whose remains are unclaimed. If the office is unsuccessful and bodies stay unclaimed, those remains are cremated and scattered at sea, or the Medical Examiner’s Office will determine if the deceased gets military benefits and can be buried at a veteran’s cemetery.
But until a health care surrogate or heir steps forward, “there’s potential for fraud” of their land or property, said Thomas Steinkamp, the agency’s chief medical-legal investigator.
Now, the names of people who’ve died, and whose remains are unclaimed, will be put on a new watch list, and Kiar’s detectives will have to figure out if they owned property or land to keep a watchful eye.
Those requests that seem out of place and odd will go into the new portal, too.
If there’s any change in property ownership, the property will be flagged yet again, triggering an investigation.
Steinkamp said he hopes the efforts will be “substantial” to reduce fraud, guessing “this is a larger issue we don’t know about; We’ve never flagged these cases in the past.”
The technology will be ready soon, and officials said they could start data from previous records requests, too, that “didn’t seem right,” Steinkamp said.
The goal: Look out for those who “can’t stand up and protect themselves,” he said.
“It’s a great way to share intelligence,” said Ron Cacciatore, who runs the property appraiser’s detective unit. “What kind of people prey on deceased individuals?”
This is yet one more layer of vigilance this year as the Broward Property Appraiser has cracked down on the rise of property crimes. Because property-fraud victims may spend months maneuvering the legal system to try to take back their properties, Broward Chief Administrative Judge Jack Tuter signed an order earlier this year giving those victims “expedited treatment” with hearings to resolve their ordeal.
He wants to make it easier for people fighting to be rightful owner of the property. He also wants his judges to pay extra attention to cases that might raise any red flags before signing off on them.
© 2023 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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