Clearwater police believe mortgage loans fraudulently obtained on a Palm Harbor home are tied to a scheme that grossed more than $2.7-million in Tampa.
CLEARWATER - A few months ago, real estate manager Steve Jackson received a disturbing phone call about a tenant who had signed papers to lease a home from him. The tenant was Rosita Perez, a $94,000-a-year financial consultant who always wore a baseball cap and for some reason kept delaying her move-in to the rental.
The call to Jackson was from a title company manager who had seen Perez in a loan closing. She didn't think Perez matched the photo on her ID. The suspicious title company manager tracked down Jackson and asked about his sale of a home to Perez.
Jackson's jaw dropped. He hadn't sold the property. He'd only rented it.
The title company manager said, "Well I'm looking at the deed with your name on it."
Jackson checked records at the courthouse. Sure enough, there was a deed with his signature showing he had sold a rental home in Palm Harbor to Perez for $185,000.
Jackson began an investigation. So did Clearwater police. They both ended up with the same suspect: Matthew B. Cox, a former art student and fiction writer who is now a fugitive being sought by federal and state authorities.
Cox and a female companion using the name Rosita Perez were the people who signed to rent the Palm Harbor home, Jackson says.
The Pinellas deception appears to be a variation on one Cox is suspected of pulling in Hillsborough County.
Cox, according to a business associate, was the mastermind behind a scheme in Tampa to use a series of phony names to purchase 21 properties and obtain mortgage loans totalling more than $2.7-million. In Tampa, the false names were used to sign for one loan at a time, and lenders discovered one by one that loans had been made to phantom borrowers who soon quit making payments and disappeared.
The Pinellas scheme was more brazen. The goal, to obtain several mortgage loans at once on the same property, was partially successful, thanks to high-quality income and employment documents manufactured with Rosita Perez's name on them.
"Never have I seen such documentation in a loan file like this," said Thomas Herson, the attorney for Jackson. "She had pay stubs and W-2s and the whole ball of wax."
Herson, who filed suit against Perez in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, says forgeries were used to facilitate as many as four mortgage loan applications on Jackson's home.
First, Jackson's signature was forged on a deed purporting to sell the home at 2410 Falcon Lane to Perez. The signature looked authentic. Jackson thinks it was lifted from the lease-option agreement with the woman who always wore the baseball cap and said she was Perez.
Next, a phony loan satisfaction was filed in Pinellas records. It showed the old mortgage on the Falcon Lane home was paid in full. That gave Rosita Perez free and clear title to the property, paving the way for her to begin filling out loan applications.
The bogus loan satisfaction is strikingly similar to false satisfactions filed in Hillsborough County for other phony buyers that Cox allegedly used to obtain mortgage loans.
The false notary and notary seal, under the name Allen R. Smith, are identical to one used on several documents by Cox and his company, Urban Equity Inc., in Hillsborough. The name and signature of one witness, Lee Cook, is the same as that found on some of the Hillsborough documents. Even the name of the executive used to sign the satisfaction is the same as one used to sign a false satisfaction on a loan on a Tampa apartment house Cox owned.
The satisfaction document in Pinellas did have flaws. It listed the address of 200 Second Ave. S in St. Petersburg as both the address of the loan company attesting to the payoff and the former address of Perez. It was neither. The address actually belongs to a UPS Store that provides rental mailboxes.
But it did the trick.
America's Mortgage Broker, a Tampa company, took a look at Rosita Perez and her new home on Falcon lane and loaned her $117,000.
The loan closed in July. The company never got its September payment or any other and has now filed a foreclosure suit. The lender hasn't had any luck finding Rosita Perez, and appears to have no security for the loan, since the Falcon Lane property rightfully belongs to Jackson.
"We got minimal information from Perez," said America's Mortgage Broker's Jim Marks. "We didn't need it."
That's because the appraisal was good, he said, and the loan was less than 65 percent of the value of the property. Marks said the Rosita Perez who signed the loan papers looked like the picture on the driver's license she presented at closing. But the ID number, 300-003-78-255-0, turned out to be invalid.
At the office of Land America Lawyers Title in Clearwater, the person claiming to be Rosita Perez was not so lucky.
"We suspected something was wrong at closing," said branch manager Barbara Bylski. "The woman didn't look like her ID. And all she cared about was, when was she going to get her money."
Lawyers Title allowed Perez to sign loan papers but refused to disburse any money. When Bylski discovered by chance that yet another lender was processing a loan for Rosita Perez, she tracked down Jackson and began asking questions. Clearwater police credit her for preventing other fraudulent loans from being funded.
Jackson said Rosita Perez described herself as a $94,197-a-year financial consultant for a Tampa company called Express Financial Services. A toll-free number was listed on loan applications for employment and income verification, but the number led callers to a phone answered by the people who were behind the scam, Jackson said.
Express Financial found out its name was being used when a lender ignored the toll-free number and called the local office for employment verification.
"I got a call from Wells Fargo to verify employment for Rosita Perez, and I said, "No, no Rosita Perez here,' " recalled Jerry Bisset, the owner of Express Financial.
Bisset later got a look at W-2s and pay stubs for Rosita Perez with his company name on them.
"They looked good," Bisset said. "Really good."
But the best counterfeit data used in the loan applications might have been the 12 canceled checks lenders got showing Rosita Perez had made a year's worth of lease-option payments to Jackson. The checks were authentic-looking, all the way down to the bank routing numbers on the back.
But Perez only made one such monthly payment on the Falcon Lane home, Jackson said. A phone was installed at the home, but no furniture ever was brought in, he said.
The initial contact to lease the home, Jackson said, was by a man who called himself James Monk and said Perez was his girlfriend. After Clearwater police began investigating, Detective Dan Slaughter e-mailed two pictures to Jackson. There were driver's license pictures of Matthew Cox and a woman who had once worked with Cox.
Jackson said he was "99 percent sure" that the pictures were of the same couple who obtained the lease on his Falcon Lane home. Title company staffers also picked the woman's photo out of a photo-pack.
Clearwater police declined to comment on their ongoing investigation, but did say their file has been forwarded to the Tampa Police Department, which, with the FBI, is investigating Cox's involvement in a series of questionable transactions in Tampa.
A former mortgage broker, Cox, 34, pleaded guilty two years ago to mortgage-related fraud and grand theft charges filed by federal and state authorities. He was sentenced to three years' probation in each case.
Cox disappeared in early December, as the St. Petersburg Times was preparing to publish an investigative story about Cox and his associates at Urban Equity. He is now being sought for violation of probation by state and federal officials.
David Walker, a former Urban Equity official who bought a mortgage brokerage company from Cox, told the Times this month that Cox admitted making up several names to obtain mortgage loans. Walker also said Cox acknowledged responsibility for filing a false mortgage satisfaction on an Urban Equity loan.
Jackson, after his brush with fraud, now takes greater precautions in his business, even requiring renters to leave a fingerprint on lease documents.
"I'm trying to be more careful," he said. "But if someone wants to defraud you, it's almost impossible to stop them when they're as talented and smart as these people were."
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org