In 2015, Lisa Tamplin bought a house from a friend with the intention to rent it out. The extra income would help her care for her ill mother. Like many landlords, she created a corporation to manage the property.
Her plan worked without a hitch until this summer, when a stranger filed false documents to try and claim ownership of her business and in turn, take the home. Tamplin was dumbfounded.
“I’ve had everything happen to me as a landlord through all these years but this was a first,” she said.
Officials say this type of crime is rare. But the plot exposes a loophole in the state’s business filing system that could leave property owners vulnerable.
In June, Gary Kickery filed paperwork with the Florida Division of Corporations that removed Tamplin as the head of the corporation she created and named himself the new officer. The Division of Corporation’s record keeping system, SunBiz, allows anyone to make these changes with little verification.
After falsely claiming control of Tamplin’s business Kickery filed a quitclaim deed, effectively handing over the property to himself, according to court records.
At that point, he could have sold the property or taken out a mortgage on the home, said Matt Weidner, the attorney representing Tamplin in a civil case against Kickery.
“The only reason this guy got caught is because there was an unsatisfied lien on (the house,)” he said. When Kickery tried to sell the home, “the title company contacted the lienholder who happened to know my client.”
After catching wind of his alleged scheme, Tamplin confronted Kickery at his home.
“He admitted to everything,” she said. “He felt that he did nothing wrong.”
Tamplin filed suit on Sept. 30, asking the judge to quiet title and name her the home’s rightful owner. Nearly a month later, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office arrested Kickery. He faces charges of grand theft and unlawful filing of false documents.
In a letter responding to Tamplin’s lawsuit, Kickery said he researched the property and thought it had been abandoned since the corporation that owned it had failed to pay its annual fees with the state.
“I called the Florida Division of Corporations and was told that I could take over any corporation that was administratively dissolved for greater than 1 year. I was told I must be willing to pay the back penalties and bring it current, and so long as I didn’t sign any other name but my own,” he wrote.
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“I followed their instructions to the letter and proceeded to pay the back penalties and fees associated with bringing the corporation current. It was my belief that I now owned the corporation and the assets it held, the house in question.”
Kickery declined to comment and deferred to his attorney, Peter Roman. Roman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
When asked what the Division of Corporations was doing to vet bad actors and prevent these types of crimes, spokesperson Catherine Brumbley said that the agency “acts in an administrative filing capacity only.”
“We do not have statutory authority to regulate individual businesses, nor do we have investigative capability,” she added.
Tamplin said stronger oversight of the SunBiz system could help protect business owners like herself.
“My signature should have been required somewhere and it wasn’t,” she said.
In August, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported on a man who was able to falsely claim control over a corporation that owned 21 properties. He then took out mortgages totaling $1.3 million.
There have also been instances of deed fraud in Florida involving privately owned homes. In a case out of Fort Lauderdale earlier this year, a man forged a deed and used a fake ID to try and sell a home that did not belong to him.
Steve Gottheim, general counsel for the American Land Title Association. said this type of crime is rare and most victims don’t actually end up losing their homes.
“In most court cases what would happen is, the court would order that the title be restored back to the rightful owner,“ he said. “Unfortunately, (victims) may have to spend some time and money to unwind that mess.”
He noted that many counties – including Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough – offer free property monitoring services. Consumers who sign up will get a notification if a document has been recorded under whichever personal or business names they choose to track.
A federal bill introduced into the House of Representatives last month could also provide a solution. The Good Documentation and Enforcement of Estate Deeds (Good DEED) Act would establish the first federal definition of deed fraud. It would also include grant funding to help local law enforcement track and combat these crimes and provide legal assistance for victims.
Still, Weidner said Floridians cannot afford to wait for federal legislation.
“We need law enforcement to stop this problem using existing laws. That includes swift punishment for all involved in these schemes,” he said.
Until the judge makes a decision, Tamplin said both the house and her corporation remain in Kickery’s name. Though she is confident that she will be named the rightful owner, Tamplin said she shudders to think what would have happened to her tenants had Kickery been able to sell the home.
“The same family has lived there since I bought the house,” she said. “It’s just devastating to know they could have been put out through no fault of their own.”