Thieves steal and sell French property in southwest Florida
Imagine if your property was stolen from under you while you were on the other side of the world. Often these are identity theft, forged signatures, fake notaries and a sale price that is too good to be true.
It’s a growing problem in southwest Florida, and the Cape Coral Police Department said they caught a man as part of a scheme to sell land he didn’t own.
The CCPD released information on Thursday describing a six month survey conducted by its Financial Crimes Unit and announced the arrest of Edwin Swanson of Houston, Texas.
US Marshals arrested Swanson on July 14. He is accused of posing as landowners and selling their Cape Coral property throughout 2020. WINK News was unable to reach him by phone for comment.
A woman from France told WINK News this was what happened to her late last year, and we are working to confirm if Swanson is online. Now she is fighting to get it back.
In November 2020, Michèle Vidal managed to discover that a crook falsified his acts and signed them without his knowledge. From now on, his lots in Port Charlotte and Cape Coral no longer belong to him technically.
“I never imagined I would have this problem one day,” said Vidal, speaking via Zoom from his living room in France. WINK News translated the interview from French.
Vidal said she only found out because she liked paying her property taxes on time, but never received her tax bill.
“I didn’t receive my tax,” Vidal said. “So I called my agent right away and said there was a problem. “
She paid nearly $ 100,000 for land in Cape Coral and Port Charlotte in 2014. She hoped that one day she would build.
“I really like Florida,” Vidal said. “I told myself that one day I might have the opportunity to live there. Not tomorrow morning, but maybe someday.
But in August 2020, someone else sold the land to two unsuspecting out-of-state couples and a good deal.
The Conways bought the Port Charlotte lot for $ 20,700. The Elseroads bought the Cape Coral land for only $ 8,200.
“You see it’s far, far from reality,” Vidal said.
Real estate attorney Kara Jursinski-Murphy, who is unrelated to the case, says at least 10 other people like her have been passing through her office lately.
“We see this quite frequently on vacant properties, usually with a foreign seller or a foreign owner,” Jursinski-Murphy said. “It causes a lot of problems. And unfortunately, people don’t monitor county records on a daily basis to see if someone is committing fraud against them. “
Someone pretending to be Vidal used a real estate agent to find real buyers who made the deal through a real securities firm. And no one has caught the biggest red flag of all.
“He’s a notary who doesn’t exist,” Vidal said.
The deeds are signed and stamped by Mr. Michel Montier, Notary Partner. WINK News quickly used the online directory of notaries in France to search for his name and got no results.
“Notaries are not as easy to find in some of these countries due to the COVID lockdown. So, you know, people used this as an opportunity to tamper, ”Jursinski-Murphy said.
Vidal is frustrated and didn’t think it could go this far in the United States. She hired a lawyer and thinks the real estate agent and the securities company should have done more to verify things.
WINK News contacted the listing agent for the sale, Claude Thomas, who represented both the buyers and the bogus seller.
Thomas didn’t want to speak on camera, but we asked Thomas if he was trying to verify the identity of the fake seller posing as Vidal, by talking on the phone or getting a copy of his ID. Thomas said he did.
But in his 20-year career, Thomas has said he’s never been cheated like this, and he believes the title company has been cheated on as well.
WINK News also contacted Agent Title Services, the company responsible for finding properties and preparing deeds. Licensed Title and Closing Agent Lisa Gavin said she could not provide details on the case, but said the situation is in the service of claims and is under investigation.
A partially written report from CCPD shows that the sale went through a financial advisor. Agent Title Services says he’s made changes now, instead of just working with sellers directly, and using an online notary service remotely or requiring sellers to go to their country’s embassy.
Vidal told WINK News that Thomas and Agent Title Services did not return her calls, but she is confident that she will get back what she lost by getting her properties or their current value back into her pocket.
“And to see the fraudsters punished, really, because I care about justice and the law,” Vidal said.
As for buyers, WINK News has reached out to both the Conways and Elseroads for comment.
The Conways, who bought the Port Charlotte land, told WINK News they didn’t find out until April of this year that the land should never have been for sale. Fortunately, last week they received a check from their title insurance for the price they paid. However, they also paid the property tax and hired a company to clear the land, so they are not sure yet if they will get their money back for it.
The Elseroads did not respond to our call.
To prevent this from happening to you, Jursinski-Murphy says buyers, real estate agents, and anyone involved in a sale shouldn’t communicate just by email. Property owners living out of state or out of the country can request to use their law firm or other local address for their tax information, so as not to appear vulnerable to potential fraudsters targeting foreign owners.