Criminals using deed fraud, identity theft to steal Arizona homes
Debi Gotlieb knew something was wrong when she could not find her late father’s home on the county assessor’s webpage. The property was tied up in probate and should have been listed as owned by her father, Jerry Gotlieb, who died in March of 2018 at the age of 84.
“So I put in his address, and it said that it belonged to Zillow. And it showed that it was on the market,” said Gotlieb, who is a real estate agent. “I went to MLS, and it was empty.” All of her father’s possessions were gone. Gotlieb says she drove to the home, called the real estate agent who sold the house to Zillow, and called the police.
“I told the police, ‘I don’t know what happened, but it’s cleaned out, and it’s not in my name.’ And he said, ‘Stay out of the house. It’s not your house,’” said Gotlieb.
“When Debi came to me, the immediate response was how are we going to get this woman’s house back?” said David Degnan, the lawyer Gotlieb hired. Degnan said at that point, time was of the essence because if the house were sold again, it would become more difficult to get it back.
“We had to get the property back immediately,” said Degnan.
What Gotlieb did not know at the time was that she had fallen victim to a growing crime called “Deed Fraud.” A simple Google search shows examples of deed fraud taking place all over the country.
“There are so many different stories of how deed fraud occurs,” said Jesi Wolnik, a real estate attorney who studies and works on deed fraud cases. Wolnik says one study from a title company estimated that 90 percent of deed fraud is carried out by family members or friends of the victim. The remaining 10 percent of cases involve criminals who target the victims.
“They’re creating fake documents. They’re recording them,” said Wolnik. “They’re obviously very successful, or they would not be doing this.”
Degnan was able to get Gotlieb’s home back after sending a demand letter to Zillow. A spokesperson for Zillow responded to Arizona’s Family Investigates with the following statement:
“Unfortunately, in 2019, Zillow was made aware of an identity theft related to a home we purchased, so we withdrew the sale and returned the deed to the family.”
Meantime, Scottsdale Police detectives were making headway in figuring out who sold the house and how. In December of 2021, they arrested 30-year-old Vicente Anzu. He was charged with theft, forgery, and identity theft in connection to this case. Anzu is a resident of California. He was somehow able to impersonate a deceased 84-year-old when he presented himself as the owner of the home.
“The criminal had an ID, and it showed that he was born in 1988. My dad bought the house in 1978. Nobody put that together,” said Gotlieb. And the fact that Anzu reportedly signed notarized documents in California helped detectives.
“If he would have signed here, he would have never been caught. But in California, the two notaries took fingerprints. Here we don’t take fingerprints,” said Gotlieb.
Gotlieb managed to get the house back, but her father’s belongings were long gone. According to the Scottsdale Police report into the incident, Anzu, or a co-conspirator, told the real estate agents involved in the sale to get rid of everything in the home.
“All of our family pictures were gone. They tossed them. So it was, it was hard,” said Gotlieb.
“Who really would get rid of every family mementos, medals, certificates, photos? Things that can’t be replaced?” said Wolnik, who just designed a course on deed fraud for real estate agents. She says she submitted the course to the Arizona Department of Real Estate. David Degnan says Debi Gotlieb’s persistence and knowledge of how real estate transactions occur made a big difference in the case.
“I think the luck was that she was also a realtor too. And that she was able to see what’s coming on the market. And when you see your property coming on the market, it’s kind of a scary thing,” said Degnan.
With the incident behind her, Gotlieb says she is still frustrated that nobody along the chain of sale spotted the multiple red flags. “I, today, could get a fake ID and go record a deed and own your house,” said Gotlieb. “You would think that there was something in place to protect an owner. There is nothing in place.”
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