Cracking Down On Homestead Exemption Fraud

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — You pay all your property taxes, but not everyone does.

Homestead exemption fraud is taking a big bite out of the tax money for Florida counties, but now more than ever Florida property appraisers are biting back.

"It's an extraordinary amount of money," Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan told WFTV.

Donegan has a homestead compliance unit, three investigators dedicated to finding people they believe are cheating the system.

In Florida, if you live in the home you own, you pay lower taxes. If you rent the home to someone else or just live in it part time, you don't get the tax break. But some people will apply for a homestead exemption even if the home isn't eligible.

Since 2006, Orange County has collected about $9.5 million in back taxes, fines, and interest from violators. During the same time, Volusia County investigators have brought in more than $14 million.

In Winter Park, WFTV found one home with a lien worth almost $42,000, the biggest in Orange County. One homeowner in Volusia County owes $120,000.

Some other counties will go after homestead exemption violators if they find out about them, but don't have specific investigators. Seminole County is now considering starting its own unit.

Property appraisers say they have more cooperation with other states and more resources than ever before to help them crack down and find out where people are living.

"We have access to the school board, access to voter rolls, we have access to utility companies," Donegan said.

Most counties have hotlines to report violators. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would give a reward of up to $500 for anyone who reports a property that's in violation.