We've been hearing reports for months now that deed theft scams are a growing problem in the city, and after a New York Times report on the issue over the weekend, it seems the situation is worse than anyone knew. "Victims are left groping for redress, unable to identify their predators or even, in some cases, to prove a crime has been committed," writes the paper.
The phenomenon can primarily be seen in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods, where high rates of foreclosures—and spiking property values—create an appealing opportunity for white collar criminals to swoop in, illegally scoop up deeds, then turn around and sell the properties at a steep profit.
Another factor complicating the matter, per the Times: a lot of these fraudsters perpetrate the deed theft under inscrutable LLC ownership structures, making them nigh impossible to track down, particularly for victims who are elderly or heavily in debt. As the Nation reported in October, similar schemes are also being deployed to snap up ownership rights to community gardens around the city.
How does it all work? Scammers often check legal notices for foreclosures, and will approach the elderly or homeowners with lots of debt offering to take over their mortgages, and give them a small lump some of cash in exchange for their home. (Black and Latino homeowners have been disproportionately targeted.) There are even websites—like the now-defunct myhouseisadump.com, which Gothamist has screengrabs of—offering up quick cash for underwater homeowners. (Anecdotally, we've seen plenty of questionable, handwritten flyers around Bed-Stuy advertising "quick cash for houses" with no more information than a phone number scrawled in Sharpie.)
Sometimes, though, illegal deed transfers happen without anyone ever having any kind of contact with a homeowner whatsoever, with scammers simply forging signatures on deed transfer paperwork, and filing it with the city. (The New York Post chronicled one New Yorker's horrible experience last year, a case now wending its way through the courts and has the owner suing the city for purported negligence.)
Currently, the Times reports, the de Blasio administration is working on legislation to help prevent this kind of deed theft, but in the meantime, let this serve as a scary reminder to never sign any documents about your home without running them by an attorney first. Or, for that one, believe anyone who shows up out of the blue offering quick cash.