PEF council leader works to educate members about deed theft and other scams targeting homeowners
By KATE MOSTACCIO
Homeowners in New York City’s boroughs, particularly those of color and the elderly, have become the targets of a rapidly growing real estate scheme that robs them of their homes, often without them even knowing it happened.
Known as “deed theft,” the scheme involves forged deeds or tricking homeowners into signing their homes over to a scammer, who then can sell it at a huge profit in high-demand housing markets.
When PEF Division 351 Council Leader Tamara Martin, who works in the Attorney General’s Real Estate Finance Bureau, took calls from distraught homeowners who had fallen victim to deed theft, she felt compelled to act.
“To get these calls from elderly and senior individuals who are suffering, who are on the phone crying out for help dealing with this and who are losing their homes, it just does something to you,” Martin said.
So, she took up the cause and put together a workshop for her PEF constituency.
“Once I had the in-house training on it, I felt I had a responsibility and obligation to try and help in this fight,” Martin said. “To make sure our members are informed. We have so many members who are homeowners, throughout the state.”
Assistant Attorney General Donald Nguyen met with PEF members for a presentation in early February. “It was very successful,” Martin said. “We had a huge turnout. Everyone really appreciated it and they walked away with some really valuable information.”
According to an AG’s Office press release, New York City received around 3,000 complaints of deed theft from 2014 to 2019, with 45 percent of those coming from Brooklyn. The AG’s Office reportedly receives three to four reports a week.
“There are two types of deed theft,” Martin explained. “There is a forged deed, where the homeowner never signed the deed and the scammer takes forged documents to the city registrar and files the forged documents.”
Often the veracity of documents is not questioned. Case in point? In 2008, the New York Daily News “stole” the Empire State Building by “drawing up a batch of bogus documents, making a fake notary stamp and filing paperwork with the city to transfer the deed to the property,” according to a Daily News article.
And, it only took 90 minutes.
“The second type is fraud,” Martin said. “A homeowner signs the deed but might not realize what they are signing or they sign under false pretenses.”
Scammers may pose as a company offering to assist with refinancing a mortgage that’s in distress. “People sign the documents thinking they are getting help and thinking this person is legitimate,” Martin said. “People have to be mindful and skeptical about everything. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually isn’t true. If you want to refinance, do your homework and shop around for your own loan.”
Deed theft scammers search through the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) and public records to look for signs of distress to exploit, such as liens, foreclosure, a judgment, a homeowner behind in water or sewer bills, etc.
“They look for people who are vulnerable,” Martin said. “This is happening a lot in communities going through gentrification due to the rising value of real estate. A majority of cases are in Brooklyn.”
Martin is hopeful PEF members will share the information with their family and the community.
“The more people we inform, the better,” she said. “All our members are working people and this information can help, not only them and their loved ones, but also the people they serve. So many people are losing their homes because they are unaware of these schemes.”
What can members do to protect themselves?
In New York City, homeowners can register their address for alerts on ACRIS and receive notifications when anything with that address is filed or comes up in the registry.
Also, the AG’s Office has set up a campaign, “Protect Our Homes,” to inform the community as well as formed an interagency task force to help combat deed theft. There is a dedicated complaint process for issues pertaining to deed theft. If you believe you have experienced deed theft, call the help line at 1-800-771-7755, email *protected email*, or fill out the online complaint form.
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