Real Estate Fraud: Robbery without a Gun
As real estate values in Brooklyn have skyrocketed, so has the rate of deed theft, mortgage fraud, and foreclosure rescue scams. Criminals running these kinds of schemes have cleanly snatched homes from under the feet of unsuspecting homeowners.
“Dating back to 2000, we’ve had 1,000 referrals for real estate fraud,” said Richard Farrell, Assistant District Attorney with the Real Estate Fraud Unit in Brooklyn. “And we see a disproportionate number of cases involving seniors as victims.”
He adds, “Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights have the highest number of real estate fraud cases in Brooklyn, with an uptick in East New York.”
Mr. Farrell describes the main types of real estate fraud as:
Deed theft: When someone tricks you into signing your property away to another party.
Mortgage fraud: When a buyer gets financing via identity theft or forgery of mortgage documents.
Foreclosure rescue scams: A group of related actions, including upfront fees for loan modification or some other outcome.
Often these types of fraud are not standalone offenses but are hybrids of each other, with identity theft added to the toxic mix. For example, foreclosure rescue scams can also result in deed theft or involve mortgage fraud.
The most tempting targets for deed theft, according to Mr. Farrell, are investment properties, and homeowners who are away for long periods of the year.
“The complexity [of real estate fraud] has increased since the use of email and the internet,” said Mr. Farrell. It’s easy to file deed changes through the NYC Register website by downloading, completing, and notarizing the filing documents. The flip side of the user-friendly system is the lack of safeguards to protect against fraud or even filing errors. Oftentimes, property owners are unaware of fraud until it’s too late.
Mr. Farrell recommends that homeowners take these steps to protect themselves against deed theft and real estate fraud:
Request that the Department of Finance, which oversees the NYC Register, send an alert any time a new document is filed against the homeowner’s property by either completing and submitting a Notice by Mail of Recorded Document form or by registering on the Automated City Register Information System or ACRIS.
Guard your personal information and watch your mail. If a bill doesn’t come, check why.
If you’re behind with your mortgage or have questions about your modification, contact a HUD-certified, professional nonprofit organization like NHS Brooklyn for FREE counseling.
Don’t ignore a dilapidated property. Maintain it!
NEVER sign your deed over to a third party or give access to your bank account. “Sign up for the ACRIS alert. Watch your mail for things that come like clockwork. It could be a screw up at the post office, but it could be something more sinister,” said Mr. Farrell. “Take your deed out! See what it looks like. Become familiar with it.”
If you think you’re a victim of real estate fraud:
Call the Action Center at the office of the Brooklyn District Attorney at 718-250-2340 and ask for the Real Estate Fraud Unit.
Assistant District Attorney Richard Farrell speaking at an NHS Brooklyn Homeowner event in East New York.