Published: Apr 19, 2011 2:17 AM EDT
Updated: Apr 18, 2011 5:13 PM EDT

The biggest county ins SW Florida has a message for people who cheat on their property tax homestead exemptions:    It is looking for  you.   Lee County is focusing on homestead frauds, and has investigated at least 1600 of them in the past 3 years.   Last year alone, Lee recovered at least 250-thousand dollars in property taxes, lost to homestead fraud.

"In these hard economic times, some people will try to commit fraud," said Lee Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson.  "People will claim 2 properties as their homestead, you can't do that.  They will rent their homestead, while still declaring it.   You can't do that either."

The homestead exemption limits property tax  increases to 3 percent maximum a year.

Wilkinson hired a former New York City police detective who is said to be a whiz at investigating white-collar and tax fraud crimes.    The office also relies on a tip line, that allows anonymous phone calls.   "In many fraud cases, it will be your neighbor who rats you out!," said Wilkinson.

A recent case focused on a mansion on the Caloosahatchee River.    Wilkinson's office found that the owners were getting homestead, while renting out the place.  That's illegal.   "Those people will end up paying us back up to 400-thousand dollars in back taxes, penalties and interest," said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson says in tight budget times, many counties in Florida are focusing on homestead fraud as a way to collect every dollar possible.   "That's the big thing about this, we are getting dollars that would otherwise be lost.   That helps the honest people who are paying their taxes,  and it helps the local governments that really need the money," Wilkinson told WINK News.