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Squatting is on the rise across the United States as foreclosures surge, eviction notices mount and homes go unsold for months, complicating the worst U.S. housing slump in a quarter century and forcing real-estate brokers to enlist the help of law enforcement and courts to sell empty houses.
In some regions, squatting is taking on new twists to include real-estate scams in which thieves "rent out" abandoned homes they don't own. Others involve "professional squatters" who move from one abandoned home to another posing as tenants who seek cash from banks as a condition to leave the premises -- a process known by real-estate brokers as "cash for key."
"There are people who move in and know exactly who to contact and say 'If you want this house, why don't you come out here and offer me cash,'" said Detective Erin Camphouse of the Los Angeles Police Department's Real Estate Fraud Unit.
"It's just cheaper for the banks to do that rather than going into the courts," she said. "The squatters are getting sophisticated and turning it on these banks who own the properties."
She cited another case in which a Los Angeles man recently "leased" three abandoned homes to unsuspecting renters through Craig's List, the online classified advertising company. The renters paid first and last month deposits, moved their belongings in and lived in the homes for several months.