Dear Real Estate Adviser,
My father bought land in Naples, Fla., in 1983 and has paid property taxes every year from his home in Colombia. He stopped getting tax statements in 2007 and asked me to look into it. I discovered his land was sold by someone who forged his signature and (the property) has been sold twice more!

The notary said she personally knew my father, which isn’t true since he hasn’t been in the U.S. since 1999. I called the sheriff’s office, and they said they couldn’t help because the closing had occurred in Miami. I called Miami police and was told I had to wait for their real estate crime investigators to call, which took six months. They, in turn, said the case needed to be transferred to Naples! But a sergeant there called to say the time to pursue a criminal case has expired. What can I do?
— Ingrid

Dear Ingrid,
Ouch. OK, here’s the rub. Prosecution for a Florida felony that does not result in death must commence within three years after it occurred, which is the case with most instances of forgery and fraud. But, and this could be one of those big “buts,” the state’s statute of limitations can be extended up to three years in some cases if the victim only became aware of the fraud after the three initial years expired. So you and your father may have a chance after all to fight this case of real estate fraud.

Proceed directly to a real estate lawyer who is deeply experienced in these matters, pausing only to report the scam on the Florida Attorney General’s fraud hotline, at (866)9-NO-SCAM or online at Myfloridalegal.com. The complaint will be reviewed by the attorney general’s task force on mortgage and real estate fraud, its Web site says (it appears there is a big backlog with so much mortgage fraud in recent years).

When you meet with the attorney, he should inform you how involved your father must become in this case and whether he must travel to the U.S. once legal proceedings start. It wouldn’t hurt to contact local print and TV media “watchdog” reporters about this scam.

Unfortunately, property owners who live internationally are at particular risk in such fraud and forgery cases because they are far less likely to catch on to what’s happening early enough to prevent the crime. Of course, the Miami investigators did you no favor with their half-year delay in getting back to you, nor did anyone along the chain of command for that matter.

As for the notary, Florida law presently does not require notaries to take thumb prints from people whose signatures on real estate documents they notarize. That would help deter some of the rampant real estate fraud in the state. Meanwhile, you can report the notary for her apparent breach of practice at www.flgov.com/notary_contact or by calling (850)922-6400.

Perhaps the notary’s personal memory of your father may become clearer when and if she is questioned as part of an investigation. Odds are someone along the paper trail knows something about the initial seller who forged your father’s name. It wouldn’t be a surprise if one or both of the other land buyers acted in collusion with the initial con man.

This is a toughie, so best of luck with it. Please let me know how it turns out.

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