Update: criminal opportunities in vacant property

I wrote a few weeks ago about some of the criminal opportunities presented by vacant property, particularly bank-owned properties that aren’t closely watched.

So here’s another angle — not a new one, but perhaps getting a new life: Claiming title to property by virtue of being a member of some organization not subject to the courts or constitution. In this variation reported by the Washington Post, a man claimed to be a “Moorish National,” and occupied a luxurious mansion in Bethesda, Maryland for a few hours. The Moorish National trend is growing, but it’s not the only group whose members file false liens or false title paperwork and take unauthorized possession of real estate.

In 2010, a Lake County, Montana  jury convicted a transient who took over a foreclosed house, changed the locks, and filed paperwork claiming he had purchased the property from Yahweh. The scam came to light when a Polson real estate agent, who had the listing for the lender, tried to get into the property and discovered the locks had been changed. He then uncovered a trail of strange paperwork, leading prosecutors to file criminal charges for theft, deceptive practices and tampering with public records or information. The account in the Billings Gazette includes links to other stories of the man’s odd behavior, his outbursts in court and resulting mental evaluation, his insistence on representing himself, and other schemes.

You can’t make this stuff up — but you can use it!

Criminal opportunities: squatters, crossing plot lines

The home foreclosure crisis has triggered a resurgence of an old problem: squatters. Defined as occupying a house or apartment without the legal right to do so, squatters may be renters who stay on after their lease ends, without paying rent. They may be homeowners who stay on after foreclosure proceedings have resulted in an order to vacate. Sometimes a bank or other mortgage holder lets them stay, believing it’s better to have the home occupied than vacant. Criminal authorities often hesitate to get involved in squatting claims, viewing them as civil matters — and the legalities of who has the right to occupy property and who is a criminal trespasser can be tricky.

In Florida, according to this Seattle Times report, Bank of America is now taking civil action to evict a group of squatters in a pricey mansion — 7,000 square feet, sold for 3.1 million in 2005 — who filed a claim of “adverse possession,” asserting that because they had been occupying the property for a certain length of time, they are now the legal owners. (In some states, a key factor is who is paying the property taxes — and I doubt it’s been the squatters!)

Some unscrupulous types even rent out homes they don’t own — often foreclosed properties — to unsuspecting tenants. Foul, yes — but fiction would be dull without the unscrupulous and the unsuspecting.

Consider the story opportunities: you got your banks, not always the best-loved of folks these days. Was the foreclosure righteous or fraudulent? Does it matter? You got your squatters. Good folks down on their luck? Some, sure. Others, as the adverse possession claims illustrate, opportunistic. You got your cops, stuck in the middle. The former owners. The neighbors. Physical tensions. Yelling, screaming. Paperwork. Street battles. Courtroom battles. Lifestyles of the strange and litigious.

Go for it.

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