The twofold problem “began with the number of homes left vacant by owners who couldn’t sell properties during the recent economic downturn years,” explained Det. Jose Hernandez, who was accompanied by Det. Rody Gaston, during a Mar. 25 at a Citizens Advisory Committee meeting in West Kendall.
As members of a four-officer “Squatter Task Force,” they assist rightful owners of property (i.e. real estate agents, banks holding foreclosure paper and management companies) to remove people who break in and occupy vacant homes.
Those occupancies are compounded by a growing number of cases of illegal rental of vacant units by fake landlords, he said. In addition, house squatters are getting bolder, moving into homes and staying for free, then citing adverse possession law, which allows a person to claim title to an abandoned property after occupying it for a certain amount of time.
In Miami-Dade County, adverse possession claims are on the rise, increasing from 30 in 2011 to 70 in 2012. In the first three months of 2013, squatters had filed 52 applications, according to the Real Estate News.
The Task Force is summoned to remove squatters who “mostly just find a vacant house that doesn’t look lived-in and take up occupancy,” Hernandez said, noting that worst cases involve families innocently renting from “scam artists, posing as real estate rental agents or property owners.
“We’re averaging about three to four cases a week since the unit began operations a year ago,” he said. “In many cases, banks that have assumed foreclosed properties or out of- state owners are simply unaware of squatter occupancies.”
The new crime unit is conducting a campaign among private owners and real estate companies to be aware of “rental scams,” urging owners or management companies to request a “watch order” from police to prevent illegal entry by those who later pose as rental agents or the property owner.
“These people spot a rental sign, break in and become fake rental agents, having illegal leases signed and collecting rents,” he advised. “Sometimes, weeks can go by before a family may discover they’re living in a scammed property — and the ‘landlord’ is long gone with rental payments. It’s a tragedy when we give 24-hour notice, and because of circumstances, people have to move belongings out on the street,” Hernandez said.
For absent owners, frequent checks are urged to spot signs of occupancy that include forced entry, broken windows, new locks or changes in the property’s appearance.
For renters, he urged careful verification that the rental agent is a duly authorized representative of a legal property by obtaining a photo ID, name, and identity of the lessor, including company name, office location and email addresses.
Before releasing funds, renters should obtain a written lease agreement, avoid any cash transaction and use personal check, cashier’s check or money order for payment.
The unit operates as part of the Miami- Dade Police in the Economic Crimes Division. Property owners can call the Bureau directly at 305-994-1000 to report suspected fraudulent activity.