One morning in 2015, Jeannette Shaw went to her mother’s home with a mortgage inspector after her mother had moved out and given her power of attorney over her estate, court documents say.
But when she got to the home, someone was already living there.
The woman in the house, Stephanie Harris, told police Shaw’s mother rented her the home, even though both Shaw and her mother said they did not. She waved around a lease and showed a receipt for payment of $5,000.
Harris said she was scammed, but she could not provide the name of the person who rented her the home. Weeks later, she still refused to leave, so prosecutors charged her with burglary and forgery.
The case, which was the subject of an April Court of Appeals of Indiana decision, is emblematic of a problem that persists in Marion County. Even as the city tears down vacant homes and the economy improves, thousands of abandoned, or otherwise empty, homes stand in neighborhoods throughout Indianapolis — offering an opportunity for scammers.
About three or four times each month, fraud detectives are called to investigate what they call “home takeovers.”
In short, a con artist will locate a vacant home, whether it’s abandoned, foreclosed or simply for sale. Then, the scammer will either move in themselves or lease out the residence to unsuspecting renters, unbeknownst to the real owners.
“A lot of people will basically go out and look at an area to see houses for sale,” said Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Sgt. Steve Walters, who works in department’s fraud unit. “They put up a different Craigslist ad, change the locks and show them the house.”
The scammers often will break in and change the locks, furnishing the renter with keys and convincing-looking legal documents printed off the internet, Walters said. Homeowners, property managers or bank inspectors eventually will come by the house and find that it has been decorated, and sometimes even improved, with paint and housework.
The scam exploded several years ago, fueled by a perfect storm of a bad economy and the city’s problem with vacant and abandoned houses. For a while, police were getting called for “home takeovers” daily.
But even though authorities say they have cracked down on such cases, yielding a decrease in reports, police still battle such scammers several times a month — enough to keep the 12-detective fraud unit busy.
Victim or con artist?
Harris’ case is indicative of a challenge in dealing with these “home takeovers.” Police have to answer a tricky question: Who is the victim and who is the scammer?
“What was happening was creating kind of an unusual situation for patrol officers who would respond,” Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said. “They would arrive and automatically have conflicting versions of who owns the property and who has the right to be there.”
Sometimes, police will just allow people to vacate a property without filing charges. Other times, though, the squatter will dig in, and try to claim, “squatter’s rights,” Walters said.
While Indiana does have adverse possession statutes, they likely would never apply to home squatters, said Florence Roisman, a law professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.
In order to successfully claim land by adverse possession, Roisman said, the person would have to reside on the land for 10 years and have paid property taxes, among other difficult hurdles. It is generally cited in land boundary disputes.
“It’s referred to as the doctrine of legalized theft. It’s very ancient,” Roisman said. “It’s not a doctrine that courts like very much.”
In some cases, including that of Harris, investigators believed the culprit was the person living in the property. Harris appealed her convictions, arguing that the matter was a civil one, not criminal, but she lost the appeal.
In another recent bizarre case, a man was charged with squatting in an expensive home that was for sale. He was trying to convince his girlfriend he was a millionaire.
Other cases arise when squatters claim they are “sovereign citizens” who don’t follow state or federal law. In one case, Wendell Brown created a fake deed to an abandoned house, and filed a complaint against IMPD when officers kicked him out of the home, arguing that he is not subject to government statutes.
In other cases, though, police unearthed widespread schemes in which scammers would rent out vacant properties to handfuls of people, creating dozens of victims over the years, with stories like that of Terri Miller.
In 2011, Miller drove past her home, in foreclosure, on the city’s northeast side, court documents say. She noticed new lawn chairs sitting in the front yard. The windows had new coverings.
Someone was even receiving mail at her house, the documents say.
It was almost as if someone new had moved in, even though the home was owned by the bank, not set for a sheriff’s sale for another couple months.
That’s because someone did move in.
Miller knocked on the door, court documents say, and came face to face with a woman who told her she was leasing the home. Miller’s own personal items were gone. She found out later a scammer, Willie Hawkins, illegally took over her home and put her items in storage, court documents say.
Hawkins was sentenced in 2014 to five years in prison for defrauding at least 10 people.
Prosecutors tackled another sprawling case when they focused on David Garden after the Indiana attorney general received 45 complaints about the man. Garden was sentenced last year to six years in prison for scamming homeowners who were on the brink of foreclosure.
In a similar case, Sheila Amos was sentenced in 2013 to 34 years in prison for taking more than $24,000 from people who thought they were buying homes that Amos owned. Amos, though, was drilling out the locks in unoccupied properties and “selling” them. She targeted those in the Latino community for her scam.
The buyers in those cases truly believed they owned the home they were living in, Curry said. Some put money into the homes to improve them.
They lost the money they gave to Amos for the sale, and nearly lost the money they put into the home.
However, the prosecutor’s office worked with the city to allow some of the victims to legitimately purchase homes that were part of the city’s land bank for a nominal amount of $2,000.
Yet, the victims were scammed again when a city employee in charge of the land bank asked them for the money directly, several thousand dollars in cash.
Instead of paying $2,000, the victims paid about $4,000 to $5,000. The city employee went to prison.
But at least they got to keep the houses.
The vacant home problem
More than 3,000 homes in the city are vacant and abandoned, according to data from the city, updated as of May of last year.
That creates thousands of residences for scammers hoping to prey on people who are desperate for a home.
“We have to find a more efficient way to deal with all these abandoned properties,” Curry said. “It’s been a difficult issue to address.”
In Mayor Joe Hogsett’s second state of the city address in April, he vowed to increase efforts to tear down vacant homes. He noted that the city has demolished more than 300 buildings in the past 15 months.
The Indiana General Assembly, too, has taken a look at the problem of urban blight. Lawmakers last year proposed bills that would have required banks to clean up vacant homes after a foreclosure and allow city redevelopment commissions to take control of abandoned properties more quickly. The measures did not pass, except for one that established a pilot program in Lake County.
Overall, the legislature considers it a city issue rather than a state problem.
Still, as long as vacant properties proliferate, scammers likely will see an opportunity for an easy con.