DUNEDIN, Fla. (WFLA) — John Whitt Jenkins is thankful to have his Dunedin house back after he discovered someone quietly filed public documents, claiming they bought it from him.
In an instant, he no longer owned his house, and received nothing in return!
“They forged my signature and they had to fake witnesses on there and a fictitious notary on there saying I sold my house for $160,000, and that was it and the county went with it,” Jenkins said.
It took Jenkins two months to get his house back. According to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the same man that stole Jenkins’ house, stole at least five other homes, too.
Title companies report this type of fraud is on the rise.
Jenkins explains how he discovered what happened. He bought his Dunedin property in 1998 for $15,000. In 2003, he started building the two-story house, brick by brick. It took him three years to complete the home for a total investment of around $100,000.
Curious about his investment, he would check the estimated value on the website Zillow from time to time. When he checked in 2019, he was stunned.
“I’m like why is Zillow saying my house has recently sold, and for $160,000, when the market value was like $350,000 at the time?” Jenkins said.
That panic turned to fear when he went to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s Office and discovered a deed had recently been filed, with what he says is his forged signature showing he sold the house.
“I said, “Let’s look at some camera footage of when this person tried to record this deed, and they’re like, ‘It was done online,” Jenkins recalls. “I’m like, ‘you just allow anybody to just send documents and you go with it, without any type of authenticity, any type of verification?'”
The deeds looks legit at first glance but, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, it’s fake. Detectives say no records exist declaring anyone by the name of the notary listed on the deed.
“They just gave him my house!” Jenkins said. “On probably two hours worth of work of electronically transmitting those documents.”
This happened four years ago. Just last month, the sheriff’s office announced the arrest of Plant City real estate broker Michael Bogsted. He was charged with scheme to defraud. One of the six homes detailed in the Felony Information is Jenkins’ house.
Bogsted, detectives say, created fraudulent deeds and fictitious mortgage documents and transferred ownership to various entities so he could either take out a mortgage or sell to an unsuspecting buyer.
Bogsted pleaded not guilty, and his attorney tells Investigator Shannon Behnken he has no comment.
In Jenkins’ case, Jennie Restrepo, of Synergy Title Partners, says her office caught and turned over several suspicious Michael Bogsted transactions to law enforcement. One those transactions involved Jenkins’ home, which she says Bogsted tried to sell to an investor her office worked with.
“[Bogsted’s] response was, ‘Don’t worry about it, nobody is going to come looking for these anyway,” Restrepo said.
“Of course you think, “I live in my house, no one can steal it from me. I have a mortgage on my home, so that’s my protection level. And it’s not.”
So what can you do to protect yourself?
The key is find out right away if someone filed fraudulent paperwork concerning your home. To help homeowners fight back, some Tampa Bay-area counties have launched alerts that you can sign up for so you are notified right away if someone files something regarding your property.
You would still have to report it to the clerk’s office and law enforcement but, experts say, you can unwind the deal much faster, before a thief can use your property to profit.
To sign up for the alert in Hillsborough County, visit Property Fraud Alert or call (800) 728-3858.
To sign up for Pinellas County’s alert system, visit their page on the Clerk of Courts website.
Here’s where you can sign up for Pasco County’s alert system
If you’re in Manatee County, you can sign up for the alert system here.
Those in Polk County can find their alert system page on the Clerk of Courts website.