Deed Theft Rises as Foreclosures Climb

by Emily Pickrell

Some thieves break into cars, bust through fire escape windows or snatch handbags on the street. But a special breed of predatory thieves is increasingly victimizing Bronx homeowners by coming in through the front door.

They present themselves as foreclosure rescue experts and say they have come to help. But their sole intention is to separate homeowners from their homes by using deceptive tactics to get the homeowners to sign over their property deeds.

The rising rate of foreclosures in the Bronx may leave local residents more vulnerable to deed theft. In the past 10 years, the rate of foreclosures has increased in the Bronx much more rapidly than in the city as a whole, climbing to nearly 30 percent in some parts of the borough. Mott Haven, Belmont, University Heights and Williamsbridge have been especially hard hit, according to a 2006 forum presented by the University Neighborhood Housing Program, which focuses on affordable housing in the borough.

Concerned with the increase of deed theft in the city, the state Legislature passed a law this month giving homeowners more protections. The new law includes criminal penalties for making false statements with the intent to defraud a homeowner. It also requires written disclosures to homeowners regarding the terms of title transfers and gives them five days to cancel a contract.

“The housing market is tough enough right now, and the last thing New York homeowners need to worry about is a scam artist,” said Bronx State Senator José Serrano, who voted in support of the legislation. “The Home Equity Theft Prevention Act is an important step to making sure people don’t lose their hard-won equity.”

The method for identifying potential victims is simple. Banks are required to file tax liens when starting foreclosure proceedings. This information is public and available on the Internet, allowing swindlers to pounce on the weekly listing of names and addresses.

Medical bills or unforeseen debts may leave homeowners unable to make their mortgage payment, and when they start receiving foreclosure notices, they are desperate to save their home. A knock on the door from someone offering to let them stay in their home and help with their debt sounds great to them.

“These people create these elaborate schemes and get people to sign over the transfer of the title with the promise that they will be able to recover their home at a future time,” said Mark Winston Griffith co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a New York organization that works to promote financial justice in low-income communities.

In a frequent form of deed theft scam, the rescuer offers to take over mortgage payments and let homeowners stay in their homes if they agree to transfer the title to a third party, Winston Griffith said. The homeowners are assured that they will be able to buy their homes back, but this rarely happens. Rather, they are often evicted.

Another method involves tricking people into transferring ownership when they believe that they are refinancing their homes, said Eric Fergen of the University Neighborhood Housing Program. Refinancing involves signing a large stack of papers, and some people do not read these documents, which deed thieves use to their advantage.

Homeowners should contact their lenders if they need to miss a payment, said Fergen. Lenders are willing to help them, but are much more reluctant once foreclosure proceedings have begun. He recommends speaking to a lawyer or a trusted community group before refinancing a loan, and to avoid organizations that promise easy bailouts.

Housing advocates have expressed concerns that the laws may not be strong enough to stop all forms of deed theft and caution homeowners to be on their guard.

“There are folks who are in the business of taking advantage of others,” said Duane Jones, a foreclosure prevention specialist at the Parodneck Foundation for Self-Help Housing and Community Development in Manhattan. “When one route closes off, they will just find another way to do it.”