- Associated Press - Saturday, January 18, 2014

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) - A real estate scam broken up recently shows just how easily a savvy grifter can file phony documents that make him appear to own a home.

“I could steal your house tomorrow, sell it to three other people and be out of the country in Buenos Aires by the end of the month,” said Jupiter mortgage broker Corey Crowley.

Crowley owns a house near one of the 35 properties that Robert A. Tribble Jr. allegedly used to defraud unsuspecting buyers and renters of $240,000. Tribble filed bogus deeds that showed him as the owner of homes from Stuart to Miami, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

Tribble didn’t escape to Buenos Aires. He’s in the Martin County jail on an $8 million bail.

But Crowley said the case exposes holes in the way deeds are recorded. Among other tricks, Tribble allegedly forged notaries’ signatures, a tactic that made documents appear legitimate when they arrived at county clerks’ offices, police say.

“He had the system figured out, and he took advantage of it,” Crowley said.

Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock said she began to look into Tribble after he was arrested. Her office found more than 100 documents filed by the self-described real estate investor, although she said it’s unclear which are real and which are fake.

Tribble isn’t the first person to be accused of using phony documents to take over vacant homes, and Bock acknowledged that it’s possible for a bad guy to steal a house.

“Can it be done? Yes,” Bock said.

Crowley, who contacted police in April with his suspicions about Tribble, said clerks should do more. He suggested phoning notaries to verify that they signed deeds, and paying special attention to people like the oft-arrested Tribble, who was convicted of a felony in Georgia in the 1980s and later faced a federal indictment.

But Bock said Florida law doesn’t allow clerks to make judgment calls on the legitimacy of the deeds they receive. So long as the documents pass legal muster, they’re recorded.

What’s more, the Palm Beach County Clerk’s Office handled 5.4 million documents last year.

When it comes to the validity of deeds, Bock said, “There is no such thing as people having an expectation that government can protect them. It’s just not possible.”

Dennis Bedard, a Miami attorney representing several of the victims in Tribble’s case, agreed that scammers face little scrutiny when filing deeds.

“It is way too easy, but it’s impossible for the clerk to detect if the deed is a fraud,” Bedard said.

Story Continues →