Apparently there are still people willing and able to fall for one of Florida’s oldest con games. The only difference is today they do it on Ebay.
GROVELAND – The eBay ad was hard to resist: an acre of pristine forestland in sunny Central Florida.
Debra Twohig thought it would be the perfect place to build a home with her fianc�. So the 47-year-old Pennsylvania woman cast a winning, $2,700 bid, and by January she had a deed in her hand.
But her acre is in a remote part of the Green Swamp, an environmentally fragile area that helps recharge drinking-water supplies for most of Central Florida.
That means she can’t build on it. She can’t even see it or find it because no roads, signs or trails lead to her land.
Twohig is not alone. For decades, many others have bought Central Florida swampland from a variety of sellers, not all of them honest.
Lake County maps show Twohig’s property sandwiched among hundreds of similar 1- and 2-acre parcels, like a checkerboard for miles around State Road 33 and County Road 474. Some are zoned one home per 20 acres.
“I am just completely blown away,” Twohig said last week after learning that she can’t use her land. “I am like, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ “
I don’t have much sympathy for Miss Twohig. Her own stupidity trapped her. If the price sounds too good, and you haven’t seen it in person, that should set off buyer beware in a thinking person. The almost non-existent property tax bill should be a tip off, and it is easily verifiable.
Selling swamp land is an age old con down here. One can remember hearing about when I was a kid in New York. Where have these people been? In the 1970’s during the Disney World boom, similar cons took place. A sucker is born every minute appears live and well in 2008.
The rest of the Orlando Sentinel article is below the fold.
Property-sales records show that in the past two years, more than 100 Green Swamp parcels of less than 5 acres have changed hands. Frequently, the parcels have flipped more than once, often to buyers across the country who probably don’t realize their land is useless. One buyer paid $18,000 for slightly more than 1 acre of wetlands, according to records.
Twohig’s annual tax bill on her single acre is 68 cents. She bought her land from Lancorp Investment Inc., based in Pembroke Pines, county records show. Lancorp had bought the land in September for $1,600, according to property records.
Company representatives did not return several phone messages.
Florida has little, if any, regulation of Internet land sales, according to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The department does investigate complaints, but ultimately, buyers must be wary.
“At the end of the day, it’s buyer beware,” said Sam Farkas, an agency spokesman. “It would really behoove you to hire a licensed real-estate professional from the area to help you.”
Hopeful property owners sometimes walk into Lake’s Property Appraiser’s Office, asking to locate their Green Swamp land. Many explain that decades ago a relative up North purchased a small parcel and willed it to them.
That’s when property appraisers pull out maps and give the bad news: Their land is hidden deep in an area with no roads or utilities. Their property is almost worthless.
“With most of them, reality just hits home,” said Frank Royce, Lake’s chief deputy property appraiser. “If you’re paying $1 in taxes, that should be an indication.”
The visitors sometimes walk away crying.
People have bought worthless land in the Green Swamp for decades.
In the 1960s, Miami-based Mr. Land hawked hundreds of parcels, divided into 1 1/4 -acre pieces, for as little $199 for the entire tract or $10 down and $10 a month, according to old newspaper advertisements.
Disney opening spurred rush
After Disney World opened in 1971 about 15 miles east of the Green Swamp, buyers began snatching up hundreds of parcels they saw advertised through the mail and newspapers.
Some hopeful buyers headed to Florida and were driven along S.R. 33 to an isolated paved road and empty clearing. Squinting salesmen pointed to the horizon and told prospective buyers their land was just beyond a tree line. Roads, utility lines and subdivisions would soon be built, they promised.
According to court records from lawsuits filed in the late 1980s against one company, Fantasyland Acres, no roads, homes or utility lines were ever built.
Today, some buyers such as Twohig can find properties, including photos, marketed on eBay.
Rita Verma of East Setauket, N.Y., purchased 2.5 acres for $3,000 in a wooded area about six miles east of S.R. 33.
The desolate land is about a hundred yards from the Gen. James A. Van Fleet State Trail, a 29-mile paved bike trail.
Verma said she was told by the seller, God’s Land Stewards LLC, that no roads lead to the property, “but that eventually there will be.”
County officials said they have no plans to build access roads to the area. Representatives for God’s Land Stewards could not be reached for comment. The company’s Web site states that many properties advertised there cannot be built upon.
Verma said she likely will hold on to her land for several years as an investment.
‘Just get me out of this’
That might be unrealistic, said Robert Lyles, a southLake County real-estate agent for more than 20 years. Once prospective buyers learn that most small Green Swamp parcels cannot be built upon, and they have no access, they shy away.
“I’ve seen people take $1,200 [for about 2.5 acres], saying: ‘Just get me out of this trap,’ ” he said. “My advice is: If you have a charitable organization, give it to them.”
Timber and logging companies, however, are interested in certain Green Swamp parcels.
Using maps and navigation systems, Mike Milliken, a forester and co-owner of Green Leaf Wood Products, often offers free trips in his Jeep through bumpy, sandy trails to show owners their land.
“They soon realize there are no roads to get out there, and they’re basically in the middle of nowhere,” Milliken said. “Most of them, about 95 percent of the time, they realize they’ve been swindled and will then say, ‘How much are you willing to offer me?’ “
Milliken also works for Boyett Timber Inc. of Webster. For years, the companies have purchased dozens of small Green Swamp lots for timber cutting.
“I’ve got thank-you letters from people all over the country, thanking me for taking their property off their hands,” he said. “However, some of them want to keep it because it’s all they’ve got left of dad, and they want to keep it for sentimental reasons.”