How easy is it to steal a house?

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

Published January 20, 2014


JUPITER A real estate scam broken up recently shows just how easily a savvy grifter can file phony documents that make him appear to own a home.

"I could steal your house tomorrow, sell it to three other people and be out of the country in Buenos Aires by the end of the month," said Jupiter mortgage broker Corey Crowley.

Crowley owns a house near one of the 35 properties that Robert A. Tribble Jr. allegedly used to defraud unsuspecting buyers and renters of $240,000. Tribble filed bogus deeds that showed him as the owner of homes from Stuart to Miami, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

Tribble didn't escape to Buenos Aires. He's in the Martin County jail on an $8 million bail.

But Crowley said the case exposes holes in the way deeds are recorded. Among other tricks, Tribble allegedly forged notaries' signatures, a tactic that made documents appear legitimate when they arrived at county clerks' offices, police say.

"He had the system figured out, and he took advantage of it," Crowley said.

Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock said she began to look into Tribble after he was arrested. Her office found more than 100 documents filed by the self-described real estate investor, although she said it's unclear which are real and which are fake.

Tribble isn't the first person to be accused of using phony documents to take over vacant homes, and Bock acknowledged that it's possible for a bad guy to steal a house.

"Can it be done? Yes," Bock said.

Crowley, who contacted police in April with his suspicions about Tribble, said clerks should do more. He suggested phoning notaries to verify that they signed deeds, and paying special attention to people like the oft-arrested Tribble, who was convicted of a felony in Georgia in the 1980s and later faced a federal indictment.

But Bock said Florida law doesn't allow clerks to make judgment calls on the legitimacy of the deeds they receive. So long as the documents pass legal muster, they're recorded.

What's more, the Palm Beach County Clerk's Office handled 5.4 million documents last year.

When it comes to the validity of deeds, Bock said, "There is no such thing as people having an expectation that government can protect them. It's just not possible."

Dennis Bedard, a Miami attorney representing several of the victims in Tribble's case, agreed that scammers face little scrutiny when filing deeds.

"It is way too easy, but it's impossible for the clerk to detect if the deed is a fraud," Bedard said.

The phony deeds in Tribble's case wouldn't have fooled a title insurer or a real estate attorney, but they tricked some victims. Nikola Malbasa delivered $23,500 in cash to Tribble as a down payment on a foreclosed home in Fort Lauderdale.

Malbasa checked the house on the Broward County Property Appraiser's website, which indicated the owner was Tribble Investments.

Some say state lawmakers should tighten rules about who can file deeds.

"The easy fix is to make legislation saying deeds can only be prepared by title companies or attorneys," said David Dweck, head of the Boca Real Estate Investors Club. "At least you would have some sort of control."

But Martin County Clerk Carolyn Timmann said such a rule might go too far. If a parent wants to deed a house to a child, for instance, the homeowner shouldn't have to hire an attorney, she said.

Still, Timmann lauded tougher penalties for filing fraudulent deeds. She said county clerks pushed for a state law that took effect in October imposing criminal and civil sanctions on people who file bogus deeds as part of a fraud.

And some county clerks take steps to prevent fraud. Bedard said the Miami-Dade County clerk sends a letter to everyone whose property is transferred for no consideration to alert them to potential chicanery. Timmann said her office tells police or tax collectors about dubious deeds.

"If we have any suspicions of wrongdoing, even though it meets the statutory requirements on its face, we notify appropriate authorities," Timmann said.

Just as consumers should check their credit once in a while to ward off identity theft, Bock suggested homeowners look at their property records once a year to make sure no one has filed a bogus document.

Such warnings aside, she disputed the notion that stealing a home and selling it is easy. Police say Tribble scouted for vacant homes in foreclosure, then filed bogus paperwork and broke in. He marketed the properties for rent on Craigslist, then persuaded his marks to put down as much as $20,000 on lease-to-own deals, they say. He later filed eviction notices against some.

By all indications, researching properties, filing paperwork and marketing homes required full-time hours.

"This guy may have made $240,000," Bock said, "but he did a heck of a lot of work."