TAMPA — Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez issued a warning Friday for people who try to lay claim to abandoned property using the state’s century-old adverse possession law: You could be committing fraud.
Henriquez announced Friday afternoon he will start issuing warning letters to anyone who files an adverse possession claim with his office.
The letter tells them that filing a claim doesn’t give them a right to the property. If they move into the building, they can be charged with trespassing or breaking and entering.
“You must pay the property taxes on the property you are claiming under adverse possession,” the letter says. “If the true owner has paid the taxes, your adverse possession claim is invalid.”
Will Shepherd, general counsel for the appraiser’s office, said the warning was prompted by a sudden flurry of adverse possession claims. In many cases, people filing claims have said they were told to do so by someone else, Shepherd said.
“We’re trying to nip this in the bud,” Shepherd said.
The principle of adverse possession, which dates to the 1800s in Florida, lets someone take over abandoned property and eventually own it if they live on it and pay the taxes for seven years.
Before the housing collapse, the appraiser’s office handled one or two claims a year, Shepherd said. Now, it’s one or two a week.
The wave of bankruptcies and foreclosures that followed the housing crash led people across the Tampa region to file adverse possession claims against empty houses. In some cases, business owners used the procedure to set themselves up as landlords of houses they didn’t own.
As recently as last October, the sheriff’s office arrested two women who laid claim to empty houses in Riverview, saying they were doing God’s work by putting people in them.
Other people make similar arguments when, through their businesses, they took over abandoned properties in Hillsborough County in 2011 and 2012.
Business owner George Williams pleaded guilty to organized fraud, grand theft and burglary for his use of adverse possession.
In his fraud alert letter, Henriquez also warns rental tenants to make sure the person claiming to be the landlord actually owns the property. If that’s not the case, the real property owner can evict the illegal tenants at any time.
“It’s our office’s duty to protect the interest of legitimate property owners, as well as unsuspecting citizens who may be duped into moving into a home illegally,” Henriquez said in the statement announcing the crackdown.
“We hope this warning letter will make it clear there are serious legal ramifications for those attempting to use our state’s adverse possession law under false pretenses.”