Richard Cross believed he was getting a stellar deal on a luxurious six-bedroom house in Pinecrest. The gated, lushly landscaped residence sported oak French doors at the front entrance. Marble-tile floors gleamed throughout the living room, dining room, and kitchen. The upstairs bedrooms boasted maple hardwood flooring. Stone railings and columns added a Greco-Roman flair to the hallways. On the ground floor, the master suite's French doors opened to a back-yard pool and hot tub made of fine granite.
In March 2010, when Cross was offered the opportunity to purchase the house as an investment, the property was valued at $781,294. But the 53-year-old oil field service owner from Texas believed the glamorous abode would be his for the bargain price of $380,000 cash thanks to a company named Miami-Dade County Short Sales.
More than a year later, Cross doesn't own the house and has received back only about $30,000. "It turned into the worst-case scenario," Cross says during a recent phone interview. "It was a scam. She never had the property."
Cross is referring to a 47-year-old Cuban-American woman who worked on behalf of Miami-Dade County Short Sales. Her name is Ayda Young, and she pleaded guilty to pulling off two scams in 1990 and 2000 that netted a combined $86,500 from six victims. In her latest alleged racket, Cross is not her only accuser.
Three other former clients also contend Young duped them. Two of those alleged victims have filed lawsuits in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court against Young and Miami-Dade County Short Sales. And since June 2010, detectives from the county police department's economic crimes bureau have been investigating Young and two other women connected to Miami-Dade County Short Sales, which collected and never returned $2.4 million in payments for real estate deals that the now-defunct firm never closed.
The caper exposes the ease with which local rip-off artists prey on out-of-towners by promising them drastically discounted prices on properties in default. And because one out of five households in Miami-Dade is in foreclosure, investors are swooping in to buy distressed properties, making the local foreclosure market a breeding ground for scammers, according to a July 26 New York Times article.
Young, a heavyset blonde who lives with her mother in a two-bedroom house in Miami's Flagami neighborhood, did not want to talk about Miami-Dade County Short Sales or her criminal past when New Times paid her a visit. "I'm sorry, but my attorney advised me not to comment," she said.
Her lawyer, Israel Encinosa, categorically denies she committed any wrongdoing. "My client lost a lot of money with Miami-Dade County Short Sales," he insists. "She never handled any funds. She is a victim too."
Frank Hollander, an attorney representing a South American investor named Morella Sosa, says his client found out about Young's foreclosure sales business on a real estate marketing website registered to Young. According to Sosa's lawsuit, the website claimed Young had access to "foreclosed properties that [had] not reached the open market."
Even though Young's name does not appear on any corporate documents for Miami-Dade County Short Sales, Hollander insists his client dealt only with her. Sosa set up two deals with Miami-Dade County Short Sales — one for $250,000 to purchase a Miami Beach condo and another for $81,000 to buy a unit at 2101 Brickell Ave.
Hollander says Sosa never received the titles of the properties or her $331,000 back, even after Young signed a document assuming full responsibility for the missing money. "The entire thing was a complete fraud," Hollander says. "During a recent deposition, Young took the Fifth on everything I asked her, even her email address."
In Cross's case, he learned about Miami-Dade County Short Sales through a real estate broker who had helped him purchase a vacation home in Fort Myers. Cross claims the broker told him the company could get the property before it was sold at auction, which is why the firm could sell it to him at a very low price. "The earlier transaction gave me a comfortable feeling," Cross says, adding he was unaware of Young's prior criminal record.
He never saw the Pinecrest house in person, only online. At the time, he had not spoken with Young or Zoraida Abreu, a realtor who was supposedly the president of Miami-Dade County Short Sales and a business associate of Ayda's.
He wired the $380,000 to a bank account owned by Miami-Dade County Short Sales on March 29 last year. Thirty days later, Cross claims, Young and Abreu told him the sale had been delayed. He demanded a refund, but the two tried to stall him, so he flew to Miami May 20. Young picked him up at the airport in her 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML350 SUV, Cross says. "I demanded that she take me to see Zoraida," Cross recalls. "Ayda kept telling me they had received the notice from the clerk's office that the property was in their hands."
She drove to an office in Weston where she handed him a phony-looking certificate of sale on Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts letterhead. "While we were there, I didn't see anything in the office that said, 'Miami-Dade County Short Sales,'" Cross adds. "Nothing on the windows or on the door or in the lobby that proved this company actually existed. And Zoraida wasn't there either."
But Young's charade did not end there, Cross says. After she drove by the Pinecrest house, she took him to a four-bedroom townhouse at 16180 SW 72nd Ter. that she allegedly claimed was her home. She had a key to the front door and gave him a tour, even pointing out the dining room where she said she celebrates Thanksgiving with her family every year. "She insisted on taking me to where she lived," Cross says. "She made a big deal about it. She was trying to get me to believe she was legit."
Instead, Cross says, he felt even more uncomfortable. He insisted on meeting with Abreu and said the deal was off. "That's when Ayda told me she was the closest I would get to Miami-Dade County Short Sales," Cross says. "And she promised I would have my money back in 24 hours."
Young never came through with the cash, the Texan claims. In June 2010, he hired Miami-based private investigator Joe Carrillo to hound Young and Abreu for his money. Carrillo, who works for Leverage Investigations Inc., discovered that Miami-Dade County Short Sales had been incorporated in 2009 by another business associate and friend of Young's — a woman named Yohanny Garcia. Two months after the company was incorporated, Abreu was listed as the president. She declined to comment. Garcia could not be reached for comment. "I believe Abreu was used by Young and Garcia," Carrillo says. "Ayda is the mastermind."
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The private eye also learned that Garcia and Young have something else in common: Both have admitted to committing fraud. In 1991, Young was put on probation for five years after she was charged with one felony count of an organized scheme to defraud and nine counts of grand theft. Two years earlier, Young had sold collector's coins to six people, claiming the trinkets were worth tens of thousands of dollars. She made $86,000. In one instance, Young sold nine coins to one victim for $57,000, claiming they would be worth $526,000, according to the arrest report. When the individual had the coins appraised, they were worth only $2,055.
In 2000, Young was arrested again for fraud and grand theft when her then-employer, Affordable Foreclosures Inc., caught her charging $70,000 on clients' credit cards so she could pull in an extra $10,000 commission. She admitted guilt the following January. She was sentenced to one year of house arrest and ten years of probation. Her pal Garcia was nabbed for forgery in 2002 and grand theft in 2003. In the latter case, Garcia was accused of stealing a neighbor's $3,337 IRS tax refund check and cashing it.
The private detective also pestered Young in failed attempts to recoup Cross's $380,000. At one point, Cross returned to Miami and accompanied Carrillo to Young's real home, her mother's house in Flagami. "I demanded my money back again," Cross says. "I told her she was going back to prison. Then she shut the door in our faces."
According to Carrillo, he was able to recover $32,300 of Cross's money from Abreu. The detective says he is aware of other investors who have gotten back $200,000. The other $2.2 million Miami-Dade County Short Sales collected from its clients is still missing. "I feel robbed," Cross says. "It has been an outright scam since day one. These people were never legit."