OAKLAND, Fla. – A Central Florida man says an identity thief used a fraudulent deed to take possession of his vacant land and then tried to sell the property to an unsuspecting buyer.
Several people, including an Oviedo man whose identity had been stolen, were unknowingly pulled into the fraudulent real estate transaction before it was uncovered.
Law enforcement is now investigating the crime.
“I just want other people to know this could be happening to them,” William Flanigan said. “Be aware.”
Flanigan purchased a vacant lot along the West Orange Trail 8 years ago with big dreams for the property.
“It’s just beautiful. I was hoping to build a home there soon,” he said. “And then all this stuff happened.”
In early March, Flanigan received a phone call from the Orange County Comptroller’s Office, where property deeds are recorded. Flanigan previously signed up for the comptroller’s free fraud alert program that automatically notifies citizens when an official record, like a deed or mortgage, is recorded with the county under their name.
The comptroller’s office informed Flanigan it had just recorded a warranty deed that transferred ownership of his vacant property to an Oviedo man named Jared Long.
“I’ve never met Jared Long,” Flanigan told News 6. “I have no idea who he is.”
The deed submitted to the comptroller’s office appeared to be notarized and signed by two witnesses, but Flanigan says his signature on the document is forged.
“If (the document) meets all the requirements of law, we’ve got to record it. We have no choice,” Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond said. “But what we do have a choice on is not being a victim. And that’s why we set up the (fraud alert) service.”
According to county records, Flanigan’s property was reportedly sold to Long for $27,000.
“I felt bad for whoever purchased it, because I didn’t sell it,” Flanigan said. “I was infuriated.”
Two weeks after the land was transferred into Long’s name, the property was listed “for sale by owner” on a popular real estate website.
“I was contacted by my buyers who wanted me to take a look at this vacant property,” real estate broker Al Spry said. “So I reached out to the seller. And he said his name was Jared Long. And Jared Long was looking to sell his property right away. And it was at a reduced price.”
Suspicious of the seller’s eagerness to close on the property so soon after he apparently acquired it, Spry discouraged his clients from buying the land.
“(The buyers) put their trust in me,” said Spry, who noticed other anomalies suggesting the transaction might be fraudulent. “They would have lost $45,000 or something like that.”
The real estate broker then contacted Flanigan, who confirmed Spry’s suspicions.
“At this point I’m thinking Jared Long is the criminal,” Flanigan said. “He’s just a stupid criminal because he put his real name and address on the deed. So now I’m mad at Jared Long.”
But Flanigan would soon learn that Long was a fraud victim just like himself.
In an interview with News 6, Long insisted he never tried to take Flanigan’s Oakland property.
“I don’t even know who Mr. Flanigan is,” the Oviedo man said while laughing. “I’ve never been to Oakland, Florida.”
Long said he was recently notified by the Orange County Comptroller’s Office that someone using his name had attempted to record a deed but failed to pay the proper recording fees. That’s when Long discovered a second deed involving Flanigan’s land had been successfully - and fraudulently - filed under his name.
“On paper, I am the owner of (Flanigan’s) vacant property,” Long said. “I do not want it.”
Once Flanigan discovered Long was not responsible for taking his land, he contacted Long in hopes of getting his own name restored on the property. After consulting an attorney, they determined the easiest and least expensive option was for Long to file a new quit claim deed that transferred the title back to Flanigan.
“This could have been very complicated if Mr. Long did not want to cooperate or if the property was sold,” real estate attorney Veronica Anderson said. “Thank goodness it is rather simple for us to correct it.”
Last month, Flanigan and Long met at the attorney’s office to execute the real estate transaction.
“Sorry you had to go through all of this,” Long told Flanigan as the two men shook hands following the deed signing.
“You’re such a great person and I so appreciate it,” replied Flanigan.
Although it may be difficult for citizens to avoid becoming the victim of property fraud, Orange County’s comptroller says it is important to catch it as soon as possible.
“This is a fast-growing crime. People are getting ripped off,” said Diamond. “Wouldn’t you rather know about it and be able to fix it before you try to sell your house or refinance your mortgage?”
About four years ago, Diamond set up a free property fraud alert program that notifies citizens by email or phone whenever an official record is filed in Orange County under their name.
Diamond, whose office records more than 3,000 physical and electronic documents each day, said such programs cannot prevent fraudulent paperwork from being filed. But early detection gives citizens the opportunity to correct issues and, if necessary, contact law enforcement.
“Make no mistake about it, it’s a crime,” Diamond said. “It’s stealing.”
Shortly after receiving the property fraud alert, Flanigan contacted his local police department to report the crime involving his Oakland property. The Ocoee Police Department is now actively investigating the fraudulent real estate transaction, according to an agency official.
Since filing the report, Flanigan said he’s received phone calls from two other realtors notifying him that someone claiming to be “Jared Long” is still trying to sell his land.
To protect potential buyers, Flanigan has posted a sign on his vacant lot that states, “Not For Sale – This Property Was Stolen – Criminal Case In Progress.”
“The criminal mind is so baffling to me,” said Flanigan, who now realizes anyone can be pulled into a property fraud scheme, including property owners like him or identity theft victims like Long. “I just wish people could be honest.”