Hopes mired in credit scheme

Investigation: Police say a convicted con artist is preying on people, like Sonia Wilson, whose dreams of buying homes are hindered by past debt.

March 10, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The smooth-talking man with a mustache convinced Sonia Wilson of Columbia that he was a lawyer who could repair her damaged credit to help her mortgage a dream home.

All he needed was a $1,000 down payment, she said.

Police believe Wilson is one of many who fell for the real estate scheme in recent months.

Robert Franklin Miller, 48, the man police have identified as the suspected scam artist, isn't a lawyer any more than he is a university dean, world karate champion, health professional or auto dealer - all of which he has claimed to be in years past.

Dubbed "Dr. Bob" because he often posed as a chiropractor, Miller has been convicted in recent years of a used-car scam in Baltimore County, a medical-clinic scam in Baltimore City and a restaurant scam in Anne Arundel County.

"He was one of the biggest swindlers I've ever prosecuted - no doubt about it," said Peter McDowell, a former Baltimore County assistant state's attorney who convicted Miller in a 1995 auto scam case that netted Miller an eight-year prison sentence.

Three weeks ago, Howard County police issued an arrest warrant for Miller. Now they are trying to identify those he may have duped in the latest scam - one in which people are promised that their bad credit will be cleared up so they can obtain mortgages, police say.

Baltimore County police arrested Miller, and he was charged Jan. 8 with committing what appears to be a variation on the same scheme. Miller posted bond two days later and was released from Baltimore County Jail.

In that case, which is scheduled for a District Court trial April 18, Miller has been formally charged with grand theft. He is accused of cashing two checks amounting to $1,500 from a woman who believed she was placing a down payment on a home in the Middle River area of Baltimore County, charging documents show.

"Not only am I not surprised that he may be conning people again, I expected it," said McDowell, who left the Baltimore County state's attorney's office last year.

Police say Miller appears to have created the intricate real estate scam using three fake business names, the name of an uninvolved, reputable real estate office, an unsuspecting local mortgage corporation, classified ads in The Sun and at least three cell phone numbers.

Miller claimed to work for Greater Washington Legal Services, Greater Washington Legal Network and American Funding and Investment Corporation - none of which is a legitimate business.

Wilson and the Baltimore County woman say they responded to classified ads placed in The Sun. Similar ads ran as recently as March 3.

Howard police have been unable to find Miller at his Harford County apartment. When they searched the apartment late last month, they turned up documents that they say point to many possible victims, said Howard police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

Sonia Wilson's check never became a down payment on the taupe duplex in Columbia she loved, but it may have landed her a place on a long list of Miller's victims.

Wilson says she and her husband, Bernard Brown, met Miller at a home on Little Foxes Run in Columbia's Long Reach village. Miller drove up in a maroon PT Cruiser - Wilson says he called it his "fun car" - and impressed Wilson with his wit.

"He's good, I'll tell you that," Wilson said, shaking her head. "He was groomed, and he really had it together."

Miller had a key to the home, which had been foreclosed on by the Veterans Administration, and he seemed to know as much about the house as any real estate agent would, Wilson said.

Wilson, who rents an apartment in Columbia's Oakland Mills village, was sold.

She says she wrote a $1,000 check and signed several contracts, including an "offer to purchase real estate," an "escrow affidavit" and a "purchase of property deposit receipt."

Miller signed those documents, too, but he is not a licensed real estate agent, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

That was Oct. 21. Miller cashed the check the next day, Wilson's bank records show. But Wilson says she heard nothing but the runaround on the status of her credit report, which Miller had promised to repair to help her get a mortgage.

Miller eventually stopped returning her calls altogether, Wilson says, so she called the Howard police last month.

Police confirmed Miller's identify through phone records, Llewellyn said. They are also awaiting results from fingerprint tests on Wilson's check to Miller.

Early in the homeownership scam investigation, Sgt. Karen Shinham of the Howard Police Department's Special Investigations Section, called one of Miller's cell phone numbers and found herself talking to a man.

"He was a smooth fast-talker," Shinham said. "He represented himself as a legitimate lawyer and even offered to meet with me, but I suspected after that conversation that I was going to keep getting the runaround."

Shinham said Miller did not answer subsequent calls, and, for weeks now, he has not returned phone messages left for him by police and a reporter who tried to reach him at three cell phone numbers associated with him.

Shinham said she thinks Miller knows police are after him and will lay low until he decides on his next move.

"He's a career thief - always has been, always will be," McDowell said. "There's only one way to stop him, and that's to put him in jail forever."

Avoiding scams

Here are tips from police for avoiding real-estate scams:

The first meeting with a real estate agent should take place in the agent's office - not at a property.

Obtain an office phone number - not just cell phone numbers.

Ask for references.

Verify an agent or business through the Better Business Bureau and county consumer affairs departments.

Consider letting a lawyer review contracts before signing them.

Don't make impulsive decisions.

Before handing over money, be certain the agent is legitimate.

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