Patti Peeples said that squatters were illegally living in her empty property. Via ABC

(NEW YORK) — Patti Peeples says she was taken by surprise last year when she discovered her unoccupied home in Jacksonville, Florida, wasn’t actually vacant.

A pair of squatters broke into one of her investment properties that was up for sale, changed the locks and caused damage to the house, Peeples alleged. To make matters worse, the squatters claimed that they were rightful tenants and produced a phony lease, according to a police report.

Peeples, 61, filmed a confrontation with the squatters; video shows the occupants of the home striking Peeples and demanding she leave the property. She told “Nightline” that her nightmare got worse after the police said they could not pursue criminal charges against the people who had moved into her residence.

“The police… gave me the really devastating news, [which] was that this was not a crime, that this had to be managed in civil court,” Peeples said.

Her ordeal is part of a rampant squatter crisis affecting homeowners throughout the United States that is prompting action from lawmakers and, in some cases, homeowners themselves.

Dionna Reynolds, a real estate attorney, told “Nightline” that current laws about squatting make it difficult for property owners to seek a quick solution to removing a squatter.

Anyone who is living in a property has what’s called “adverse possession,” where “they take that property on as their own and they do have certain legal rights,” she said.

“We would think it’s trespassing, but they have to be evicted through the court process,” said Reynolds, who added that the court process is very lengthy and costly.

Peeples said it took her 36 days to get the alleged squatters out of her property.

Other property owners across the country have reported similar problems.

Last week two suspected squatters were arrested on suspicion they killed a woman who walked in on them living in her late mother’s Manhattan apartment, police allege.

Nadia Vitels’ body was found in a duffel bag, according to investigators. The investigation is ongoing.

In an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood, property owners who have been dealing with squatters said they fear such an escalation and have taken up a community watch, patrolling their streets and taking photos and videos of any suspected squatting.

Homeowners in Studio City, California, said they were recently shocked when a squatter allegedly took over an empty $3 million home.

“They’re around, they’re helping themselves to neighbors’ packages that get dropped off in the middle of the night from Amazon,” Lori Lowenthal, a member of the neighborhood watch, told “Nightline.” “I’ve lived here since 1991. It’s a very different vibe.”

Another Los Angeles resident has made it his mission to crack down on squatters.

Flash Shelton has been dubbed the “Squatter Hunter” for his viral videos showing him confronting alleged squatters in the city and getting them to leave the property.

Shelton, a former handyman who dealt with a squatter in the house his mother owned, talked to “Nightline” about one of his latest incidents with an alleged squatter.

“Yeah, I got in between him in the house. And I just said, you know, are you, I understand you’ve been squatting in this residence and he started telling me he had a lease,” he said. “I actually followed him in all the way in and we just sat down and I talked to him for like an hour and a half.”

But in Florida that is about to change.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Wednesday that puts criminal penalties on alleged squatters.

The law, which goes into effect in July, gives police the right to immediately arrest squatters and criminally charge any trespasser with a felony for any intentional damage and issues a misdemeanor charge for falsifying a lease.

The bill had bipartisan support in the state legislature and several victims of alleged squatting incidents, including Peeples, testified during its hearings. Other states are looking into similar legislation, which she said was the right move.

“The fight is absolutely not done yet,” Peeples said. “And if some sort of federal legislation can be crafted, I think that would be the best solution of all.”

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