The Economic Crimes Unit within the Miami Police Department is investigating another real estate scam involving vacant lots.
NBC 6 Investigators have uncovered an increase of this type of scams during the pandemic - as many deals have come together remotely.
Shirley Gibson said she is the latest victim.
The NBC 6 Investigators get results
Gibson said his father bought a vacant lot along Plaza and Charles St. in Coconut Grove after he immigrated to South Florida from the Bahamas. The 88-year-old said her plan was to pass the lot down to her niece and nephew.
“So Blacks will have some property in West Grove because the property is very, very valuable,” Gibson said.
Earlier this month, Gibson said she went to pay taxes on the lot and was told by county staff she did not have to pay them because they were already paid by the new owner, Ollie Development LLC out of New York.
County records show Ollie Development LLC purchased the lot for $230,000 in March. But Gibson said she never put the lot up for sale. She contacted a lawyer.
“For me, it’s been disturbing,” Gibson told NBC 6. “I’m just distraught for all of this, that I have to fight to keep my property.”
From the tax office, Gibson received a copy of the deed transfer. She claims someone forged her signature.
NBC 6 Investigators obtained a copy of the deed through her attorney, David Winker.
The deed appears to be signed by notary Mohamed Chraibi. However, he told NBC 6 he is also a victim of identity theft and is cooperating with Miami PD detectives.
In an email, Chraibi said his signature on the deed is a forgery. The notary stamp used on the sale, he said, is in the shape of a capitol building while his official stamp has an eagle on it. He said his office assistant confirmed his real stamp remains in his desk.
“I have never notarized any documents for her (Gibson) nor do I know her or have met her,” Chraibi wrote to NBC 6.
Trans-State Title Insurance Agency, LLC is the title company that oversaw Gibson’s deal.
The company’s president, Gary Bodzin, told NBC 6 he did not want to disclose how the deal started because there are ongoing internal and law enforcement investigations.
Bodzin did tell NBC 6 since the pandemic began, title companies have had to rely on “signing documents with an outside notary and ship them,” adding “criminals have apparently taken advantage of this.”
In a statement, he said, “The media has somehow mischaracterized this as a theft of real estate from the owner. Legally speaking, if an imposter signs a deed, the deed is void, and the owner still owns the property. If this is what happened, it would be a theft of money from the buyer, not a theft of the property from the owner.”
Bodzin went on to say, “We have been in the real estate closing and title business for close to 40 years, and have handled thousands of closings, and this is the first time this has happened to us. We believe this is because we are extremely careful. Some frauds are extremely difficult, or even impossible to detect. This matter is presently under investigation, and if it turns out that an imposter signed the deed, it would be an example of why no real estate should ever be purchased without title insurance.”
NBC 6 Investigators have covered these scams since the Spring when a scammer tried to sell a Miami lot from under its owner, Alfred Thomas.
Miami Police Assistant Chief Armando Aguilar told us they had received more than 50 similar complaints and are currently investigating Thomas’ case.
NBC 6 Investigators found the same scammer also targeted a local real estate investor. In an exclusive interview, he said he was able to stop the deal before the money was transferred, adding this was the second time he was a victim of this type of scam.
“They were about to wire him $90,000 dollars,” he told NBC 6.
“As you reported earlier, in excess of 50 cases. Now, more and more people are calling me. The last few days have been nuts. My phone has been ringing off the hook with similar cases,” said Gibson’s attorney David Winker. “Mostly empty lots, rental properties, abandoned houses. Unfortunately, mostly minority (victims), and I think exclusively elderly.”
Gibson told NBC 6 this wasn’t the only time her properties have been targeted.
She said she found another lot was listed on Zillow fraudulently. Winker said he sent a demand letter to Zillow and the website has since removed the lot posting.
Earlier, Zillow told NBC 6 they immediately remove properties when they find out they were posted fraudulently. A spokesperson said, like other online real estate platforms, the company gets its information from the MLS real estate database.
Winker sent a letter detailing NBC 6 coverage and Gibson’s case to the secret service field office in Atlanta, which specializes in financial crimes.
Winker said this issue is bigger than one lawyer.
“We’ll take care of Ms. Gibson but we need to put in some systemic changes,” Winker said.
NBC 6 Investigators called the phone numbers listed for Ollie Development LLC but couldn’t reach anyone from the company for comment.