Around the U.S., deed theft has emerged as one of the most sophisticated and devastating frauds ever to menace homeowners, the Associated Press reports. Foreclosure “rescue” scams that have stolen thousands of dollars from homeowners in the years since the housing collapse have been pushed by savvy perpetrators to their limit. They lie to convince the desperate to sign over their title, then force them into homelessness or a years-long legal battle. “The scammers are no longer content with stealing $5,000. Now they want the whole house,” said Dina Levy, who heads the Homeowner Protection Program in the New York attorney general’s office, which has spread word about deed theft and prosecuted culprits.
There are no firm numbers on how many cases of deed theft have occurred, but they are been reported around the U.S., particularly in markets that have rebounded from the housing crisis or in neighborhoods that are gentrifying. “It’s growing, absolutely,” said Kristen Clarke, who heads the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In San Diego, federal prosecutors obtained a guilty plea and a six-year prison sentence last year for a man who forged deeds on at least 15 homes, then quickly sold them to the surprise of unwitting owners. In Detroit, the Wayne County Register of Deeds is looking to expand its mortgage and deed fraud unit to deal with a crush of cases. The office runs a round-the-clock property fraud hotline and has a marked deed-theft patrol car used by investigators following up on tips. The problem has been gravest in New York, particularly in pricey neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The New York sheriff’s office has taken a lead on the cases and since 2014, the office has amassed more than 1,700 complaints, with hundreds under investigation, and some 32 arrests already tallied.