Advertisement

Here’s how people in Florida steal homes from older people and the dead

Authorities say it’s an increasing problem in the Tampa Bay area. One woman is accused of trying to steal her own mother’s home.
 
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Col. Robert Ura talks about fraudsters stealing identities in order to commit property fraud at a news conference Monday. Ura described the arrest of a man who forged the signatures of dead notaries and witnesses in order to steal homes in Brandon and West Palm Beach.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Col. Robert Ura talks about fraudsters stealing identities in order to commit property fraud at a news conference Monday. Ura described the arrest of a man who forged the signatures of dead notaries and witnesses in order to steal homes in Brandon and West Palm Beach. [ EMMA UBER | Times ]
Published July 10, 2023|Updated July 14, 2023

A Pasco County woman raised her right hand as the notary on the Zoom call read her an oath.

“Do you solemnly swear or affirm under the penalty of perjury that the statements made in these documents are true to the best of your knowledge and belief?” the notary asked.

“Yes,” she responded. “I swear.”

Even as she swore an oath of truth, she wore a gray wig and rectangular reading glasses. She used a name that was not her own. According to Hillsborough State Attorney Suzy Lopez, Wanda Vann impersonated her own senior mother in an attempt to steal her home.

Video obtained by the Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts shows Vann using Notarize, an online notarization service, to fraudulently sign a quitclaim deed on behalf of her mother to transfer ownership of her mother’s house to herself.

Tampa police arrested Vann on May 11 on charges of exploitation of an elderly person and forgery.

“Like at the end of every ‘Scooby-Doo’ cartoon, the mask and the wig are pulled off and in this case the mask and the wig were pulled off not by Scooby and the team, but by the Tampa Police Department,” Lopez said. “This woman is now facing decades in prison for what she did.”

A Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office mugshot of Wanda Vann, who was arrested May 11. Vann faces charges of forgery and exploitation of an elderly person.
A Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office mugshot of Wanda Vann, who was arrested May 11. Vann faces charges of forgery and exploitation of an elderly person. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]

Law enforcement agencies across Tampa Bay are teaming up to combat a concerning rise in property fraud, Hillsborough County Clerk of Court Cindy Stuart said during a news conference Monday. Police chiefs, judges and elected officials from the Tampa Police Department, St. Petersburg Police Department, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office and more attended the news conference to present a unified front against property crime.

Vann’s case represents what Lopez called a concerning trend of property fraud at the cost of seniors or the deceased.

“We are seeing fraudsters target vulnerable populations, especially the elderly,” Lopez said.

Florida ranked third in the nation for cases of identity theft in 2022, with 111,221 complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission, according to commission data.

Another suspected fraudster, James Fahlman, tried to steal a $345,000 West Palm Beach house belonging to an older man, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Col. Robert Ura said. Fahlman filed a fraudulent enhanced life estate deed, a document Ura said is typically used by senior parents to ensure their children receive their house after their death without having to go through probate.

Fahlman used the names of dead notaries and witnesses in the deed, Ura said. If he had succeeded, the home would have been passed to him upon the owner’s death rather than the owner’s adult son.

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“Property or identity fraud causes financial ruin and emotional distress for victims,” Lopez said. “These defendants go after a person’s livelihood using deceitful schemes.”

While investigating Fahlman, deputies found he lived in a Brandon home whose owner died in 2021. After the owner’s death, Fahlman and another man forged a quitclaim deed showing the owner signing over the house. Fahlman moved into the home and intended to sell it for $275,000, Ura said.

A Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office mugshot of James Fahlman, who was arrested on Dec. 1, 2022.
A Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office mugshot of James Fahlman, who was arrested on Dec. 1, 2022. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]

Currently held in the Falkenburg Road Jail with bail set at more than $100,000, Fahlman faces 19 charges, 10 of which are first-degree felonies. His charges include exploitation of an elderly person, two counts of grand theft of $100,000 or more, five counts of forgery and three counts of fraudulent use of information of the deceased.

“These criminals have no regard for the family of the recently deceased, who now have an additional burden of dealing with criminal activity on their family home,” Tampa police Chief Lee Bercaw said.

The clerk’s offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties all offer property fraud alert services that allow residents to receive alerts any time a document is filed using their name or their business’s name. If a resident receives notification a document was filed in their name without their knowledge, they should contact law enforcement immediately.