When some popular television shows began telling creepy stories about people who secretly live in other people's homes, the term "phrogging" gained widespread interest and attention. Phrogging isn't a legal term, but it is close to one that is—squatting.
As of 2022, the word phrogging doesn't appear in any traditional dictionaries, but it has come into modern use to describe the act of living in another's home without their knowledge. Usually, it's used to refer to situations where the occupants are home (as improbable as that might seem), but sometimes the term appears to include situations where the occupants are temporarily away—on vacation for example. While the precise definition of phrogging remains in flux, it is similar to the term squatting, which has been around for a long time.
Squatting is occupying another's property without permission or without the legal right to occupy it. Squatting often results from rising rents and increased homelessness; unhoused people will live in abandoned houses or buildings because they have no other options for shelter. Sometimes, however, squatters are people looking for places to conduct criminal activity, such as drug dealing. And sometimes, squatting happens in homes that are not abandoned. Squatters might occupy vacation homes where the occupants are gone for long periods, or they might even occupy a full-time home while the occupants are away on a trip (making it similar to one of the definitions of "phrogging" discussed above).
Whether it's called squatting, phrogging, or something else, occupying another's property without permission can result in a number of criminal charges, including felony charges.
In most states, squatting can be prosecuted as a criminal trespass (entering land or property without consent), which is usually a misdemeanor. Some states have made squatting its own crime, as a specific type of trespass. Michigan, for example, has a statute that defines the crime of squatting as occupying a dwelling (home) without having the owner's consent. It's a misdemeanor for the first offense, and a felony for any subsequent offense. (Michigan Penal Code, § 750.553.) Some cities' local ordinances also criminalize squatting, such as Tucson, which makes it a crime to squat on government property. (Tucson, Ariz, Code of City Ordinances, art. 1, § 11-13.)
In some circumstances, squatting can be charged as burglary, which is entering a building with intent to steal or commit a crime. When squatters temporarily move into someone's home, they'll often shower, cook meals, watch TV, turn on lights, and maybe even eat some food left in the fridge. All of these actions are theft—taking property (like food or shampoo), and using another's utilities (like electricity and water) without the owners' permission is stealing. When squatters enter a building with the intent to steal, they commit burglary, which is usually a felony.
Although not all squatters damage the homes they occupy, some do, and the damage is more likely to occur when a large group of squatters takes up residence together. Most if not all states have laws that criminalize vandalism or the destruction of property, which can be either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the amount of damage.
Although secretly living in another's home while the resident is there is probably very uncommon, such conduct could lead to other criminal charges. If the perpetrator is surreptitiously watching the unsuspecting resident, for example, a charge of invasion of privacy or voyeurism could result (the "peeping Tom" scenario). And if the person is trying to scare or harass the resident, charges of stalking and criminal harassment could apply.
If you've been charged with criminal trespass or squatting, talk to a criminal defense lawyer. Be sure to choose a local attorney with several years of criminal defense experience, who will know the laws of your state and your city.
If you're a property owner whose house or building is occupied by someone without your consent, consult a local, experienced landlord-tenant attorney with significant eviction experience. An attorney can advise you on whether to involve law enforcement and how to legally regain possession of your property.