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A Times Editorial

Property owners need protection from scammers

It is now easier in Florida to lay claim to someone's house than to get a driver's license, apparently. All scammers need to do is file a notarized form with the county clerk's office and pay a fee to have a deed recorded, clouding the property's title, often without the legal owner even being aware. Exactly why Jacob Franz Dyck, a self-described "sovereign citizen," has perpetrated this scheme hundreds of times across Florida is unclear. But in his wake are victimized homeowners who could be forced to pay thousands of dollars to reclaim a clear title. Florida's Legislature needs to close this unintentional loophole to protect property owners.

Dyck is a convicted felon who says government's laws don't apply to him. His other scams seem more clear-cut. He allegedly has made a tidy sum misleading homeowners facing foreclosure by claiming he could save their homes by transferring them into a "pure trust." Dyck would collect a fee and the homes would be foreclosed anyway. But the goal of his most recently discovered activities — filing deeds on homes he has no ties to — is less clear.

As reported by St. Petersburg Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas and John Martin, Dyck has filed "wild deeds" claiming ownership in at least 21 of the state's 67 counties, including about 40 homes in Pinellas and more than 150 in Hillsborough. In the summer of 2010, Dyck filed more than 100 of these deeds in Osceola County. Even though his actions are clearly fraudulent, state law requires the state's court clerk offices to record Dyck's deeds if they are notarized and the fee is paid. Meanwhile, the real property owner is left in the dark.

Dyck's activities have rightly drawn the attention of various law enforcement agencies. But in addition to prosecutors pursuing charges, the Florida Legislature will need to consider a legal fix to prohibit future scammers — ideally one that will hold innocent homeowners harmless.

One idea, supported by Pinellas County Clerk of Circuit Court Ken Burke, is to require notification to owners of record whenever a new deed is recorded that affects their ownership interest. At least this would help homeowners learn early that there is a cloud over their title.

But lawmakers will still need to figure out a better remedy than current law, which would require each rightful owner to file a "quiet title action" in order to regain clear title — a process that can cost $1,000 or more in attorney fees and costs. Manatee County Clerk o f Circuit Court R.B. "Chips" Shore suggests a judicial remedy should be made available where all of Dyck's fraudulent recordings are searched out and reversed at once.

Shore also recommends the Legislature consider giving court clerks the authority to refer suspicious filings to law enforcement. Right now, they are limited to a ministerial role.

Until there is a legislative remedy, however, the best way for Florida property owners to not to be blindsided by Dyck and those like him is to check their land records annually, much like consumers can check their credit history. The records are available online, typically from court clerks offices under "official records."

Dyck has exposed a system that never anticipated such a consummate liar. Now it's the job of state lawmakers to patch those holes to protect honest property owners everywhere.

Property owners need protection from scammers 10/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 6:18pm]
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