Shirley Gibson, 86, made the annual trek to a county office to pay her property taxes earlier this year, only to be told they were already paid by the new owner.
The Coconut Grove vacant lot her grandfather bought when he immigrated from the Bahamas to South Florida was swiped from right under her. She eventually learned the awful truth: the property had been stolen and resold for $230,000 without her knowledge.
Gibson immediately contacted her friend and lawyer, David Winker, who notified police.
On Friday, as authorities held a press conference to highlight the growing problem of fraud against the elderly, prosecutors revealed they had charged three people suspected of swiping the property.
Otis Lathen Powell, Shantel Vennissa Chang and Jason Webley Sr. were charged with a host of felonies, including money laundering, grand theft, organized scheme to defraud and theft from a person 65 years or older. Police believe the scheme — which involved a complicated series of deposits and wire transfers before the property was sold — was not the trio’s first offense.
“I think that when we’re looking at a crime this sophisticated and really this bold, we’re again just scratching the surface,” Miami Assistant Police Chief Armando Aguilar Jr. said at Friday’s press conference.
Florida currently ranks second in the country for elder fraud with over $84,000,000 lost by those over 60 years of age in the state, according to an FBI report.
Over the past year, the elderly in South Florida have been hit hard. This month, a 93-year-old man was robbed of his home and $500,000 cash by his son and niece. In April, a 31-year-old nurse practitioner was arrested for participating in a scam to target elderly victims and convince them to wire her money.
Earlier this year, police say, federal agents shot and killed an armed man in Coral Gables who was being investigated as part of a similar ring. His cohort, who was wounded in the incident, was charged federally with scamming the elderly.
“Those who exploit and prey on our elderly residents have a cold, cold heart,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who added more than 50 similar cases have been reported recently.
Friday’s press conference, held at the State Attorney’s Office, was attended by Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who announced a special task force would soon be created to tackle crimes targeting the elderly. The mayor said the Miami-Dade Police Department has been able to return over $1 million to victims of elderly targeted scams since January 2020, she said.
Seniors are targeted because sometimes they don’t know it’s happening, or if they do know, it’s often people they trust, she said. For this reason, she asked the public to speak up if they see anything suspicious.
“Our grandparents, our elderly neighbors, they need our help,” Levine Cava said.
Quit claim deed fraud, in particular, has been a perpetual problem in Miami-Dade County. These scams have only increased because during the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the paperwork involved in home sales and transfers went digital, Aguilar said.
In Gibson’s case, the trio is alleged to have forged Gibson’s name on a quit claim deed, recorded the deed in the clerk of court’s system and sold the property themselves. It was then bought for $230,000 by Ollie Development LLC, a company based in Brooklyn, New York, according to the deed.
The title company Trans-State Title Insurance Agency, LLC lost $230,000 in this illegal sale and are victims in the situation as well, she said. Winker, her attorney, said they are in the process of transferring the property back into Gibson’s custody, but assured that she will regain ownership soon.
“Be aware. Be cognizant of what’s going on because it could happen to you,” Gibson said.