In 30 New York City cases, people allegedly forged or attempted to forge new deeds for property using easily available online records to sell homes and collect the proceeds, reports the Wall Street Journal. Prosecutors in Chicago and Detroit also have seen a spike in a category of crime known as deed fraud. Investors who own several properties are especially vulnerable, prosecutors said, because they are less likely to notice if someone moves into a home they don't visit regularly. “This crime has always happened, but it's been made much more prolific” by having records online, said David Szuchman, chief of the investigation division for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
The rise in such crimes is an unintended consequence of an effort to put documents on the Internet to promote transparency in local real-estate markets. “It had a noble purpose and was a good idea, but in fact has become one-stop shopping for fraud,” said Szuchman, calling the problem “epidemic” in Manhattan. A hot property market can make the crime easier. Swindlers may price homes below market values, putting pressure on buyers to snap them up quickly, preferably by cash. In New York City, it is possible to view online copies of deeds, mortgages and other documents, which often include owners' signatures, primary addresses, emails and phone numbers, the amount of the mortgage and whether there are liens on the property. That makes it easier to obtain details like birth dates and Social Security numbers. The swindlers use the data to impersonate the owner, creating a fake deed for the new owners.