By Lance Colmer
According to RealtyTrac.com, 2012 saw a total of 2,304,941 foreclosure filings, default notices, and bank repossessions. The overwhelming number of foreclosures and vacant homes has created a serious problem for real estate agents, the community and law enforcement.
Former safe, family-friendly neighborhoods have become a magnet for squatters, gang members and identity thieves, who use these properties to further their criminal enterprise. Real estate agents, who have been contracted by the banks and absentee owners to sell these properties, often find them occupied by subjects who claim a “legitimate” right of occupancy.
Real estate agents, as well as law enforcement officers responding to a call of subjects squatting in a home, are often shown a “deed” or a “rental agreement,” by the squatters who claim a legal right to be there. These calls are often erroneously handled as “civil” issues, leaving the real estate agents, banks and legal title holders to evict the squatters from the home. This process delays the sale of the home, costing the legal owners and real estate agents time and money.
California law clearly indicates that squatting is a crime, not a civil issue. However, it is first important to understand what happens during the foreclosure process. Once a bank files an initial foreclosure notice, called a “Notice of Default,” the banks are required to wait a specified period prior to setting a date to foreclose and sell the property. This time period varies by state and can often be several months.
In the meantime, the owners have walked away, sometimes months before a notice of default is even filed, leaving the property vacant. Criminals involved in foreclosed or abandoned property schemes usually have some knowledge of real estate and property law, and use this knowledge to scam real estate agents and confuse police officers not educated in these types of frauds.
Two of the most common types of criminal activity related to foreclosed or abandoned properties are rent skimming and rent-free living.
California Penal Code § 602.9 defines rent skimming as a crime in which a suspect claims ownership or takes possession of a residential dwelling, without the legal owner’s consent, for the purposes of renting that dwelling to another person.
In a typical rent skimming scenario, a suspect will locate a vacant home, break into the home and change the locks. The suspect may do minimal work to prepare the home and then place a “for rent” ad in the newspaper or an online site, such as Craigslist.
The unsuspecting victim responding to the ad will give the suspect a cash payment as a security deposit and first month’s rent. The suspect pockets the cash and leaves the victim in the home. These victims are often later contacted by real estate agents and law enforcement and advised that they are actually trespassing in the home and are forced to leave.
Some squatters are not looking to make money, but rather, to simply live “rent free” until the legal owners or neighbors make enough complaints to have the squatters removed or arrested for trespassing.
These types of squatters may use fake or forged rental documents to enable the trespassing, while others break into the home and live rent-free until they are contacted by the police. Once removed by law enforcement, these opportunist squatters will move to the next vacant home and begin the scam again.
Anyone suspecting that a vacant home is being occupied by squatters should notify law enforcement. Aside from trespassing, many squatters are involved in more serious forms of crime and use the home as a base of operations. Neighbors taking a proactive approach can help keep their community safe.
Colmer is an investigator with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, with 17 years of law enforcement experience. He frequently blogs