DON’T BE A VICTIM

New Yorkers’ homes are being robbed from under their feet as a result of predatory deed theft. Tonight, we’ll tell you what that means and how victims are fighting back.

Aired on October 9, 2019. 

TRANSCRIPT

> THEFT IN NEW YORK CITY IS RAMPANT ACCORDING TO A RECENT GRAND JURY REPORT RELEASED BY MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY CY VANCE WHICH FOUND THAT AS THE VALUE OF REAL ESTATE IN THE CITY HAS SURGED, SO HAS THE INCIDENTS OF VULNERABLE NEW YORKERS BEING SCAMMED OUT OF THEIR PROPERTY.

ACCORDING TO THE REPORT, FRAUDSTERS OFTEN CONVINCE THEIR VICTIMS TO ACTUALLY SIGN OVER THE DEED TO THEIR HOME AND, IN SOME CASES, THEY SIMPLY FORGE THE NAME OF RECENTLY DECEASED HOMEOWNERS TO TAKE POSSESSIONS OF THEIR PROPERTY.

THEREBY STEALING WEALTH THAT HAD BEEN ACCUMULATED FOR GENERATIONS, OFTEN WITH LITTLE OR NO RECOURSE.

JOINING US TO TALK ABOUT THIS URGENT PROBLEM AND WHAT IF ANYTHING CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT IS KRISTI PEEL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR NYC NEIGHBORHOODS, A NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT PROMOTES AND PROTECTS AFFORDABLE HOMEOWNERSHIP.

KRISTI, WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

THANK YOU FOR FOCUSING ON THIS REALLY IMPORTANT ISSUE.

IT'S AN IMPORTANT ISSUE.

YEAH.

FIRST OF ALL, WHO IS BEING TARGETED IN THIS HEINOUS CRIME?

WELL, THROUGHOUT NEW YORK CITY'S NEIGHBORHOODS, THERE ARE PROBABLY AROUND 300,000 PROPERTY OWNERS WHO WE WOULD CONSIDER OF MODEST MEANS, RIGHT.

THEY'RE WORKING CLASS FAMILIES WHO HAVE BEEN ABLE TO BUY AND KEEP PROPERTIES FOR MANY DECADES AND GENERATIONS.

AND AT TIMES, THE OWNER, THE VULNERABLE FINANCIALLY OR FOR OTHER REASONS, AND PEOPLE, SCAMMERS, YOU KNOW, FRAUDSTERS, THEY'RE A LOT OF PREDATORY ACTORS OUT THERE TO TRY AND TAKE PROPERTIES FROM UNSUSPECTING NEW YORK CITY OWNERS.

SO WHAT EXACTLY IS IT THAT'S BEING DONE?

HOW ARE THEY TAKING THESE PROPERTIES FROM THESE VULNERABLE NEW YORKERS?

THERE ARE A COUPLE OF WAYS IT CAN HAPPEN.

WHAT WE'VE SEEN AT THE CENTER FOR NEW YORK CITY NEIGHBORHOODS WHERE WE'VE BEEN WORKING TO PREVENT FORECLOSURES SINCE 2008, A LOT OF TIMES A HOMEOWNER WILL BE STRUGGLING ON A MORTGAGE PAYMENT OR PROPERTY TAX PAYMENT, AND THE PUBLIC RECORDS WILL SHOW THIS, RIGHT.

AND NEIGHBORHOODS WHERE THE PROPERTY VALUES HAVE BEEN INCREASING, THERE ARE SCAMMERS OUT THERE THAT ARE, YOU KNOW, WALKING THE BLOCK, CALLING PEOPLE DAILY, PUTTING FLYERS IN THEIR MAILBOXES TO TRY AND GET THEM TO EITHER PAY THEM FOR HELP, TO GET THE MORTGAGE CURRENT, OR TO, YOU KNOW, SELL THEM THEIR PROPERTY FOR A BELOW-MARKET VALUE.

THEY'RE REALLY TRYING TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF, YOU KNOW, VULNERABLE, TRUSTING, UNSUSPECTING PROPERTY OWNERS, SOME WHO MIGHT BE IN SOME FINANCIAL DIFFICULTY.

SO FOR EXAMPLE, WITH THE MORTGAGE SCAM ISSUE, IF YOU'RE TRYING TO KEEP YOUR HOME FROM FALLING INTO FORECLOSURE, SOMEBODY MIGHT SAY PAY ME SOME MONEY, I'LL SAVE YOUR HOME FOR YOU.

AND BY THE WAY -- THAT'S SOMETHING YOU SHOULD NEVER BELIEVE, RIGHT.

IF SOMEBODY SAYS PAY ME AND I'LL SAVE YOUR HOME, THAT'S A REALLY BIG RED FLAG.

RIGHT.

AND IN FACT, IT'S ILLEGAL FOR SOMEBODY TO TAKE MONEY AND PROMISE YOU MORTGAGE MODIFICATIONS UNLESS THEY'RE AN ATTORNEY.

AND WE'VE SEEN CASES WHERE PEOPLE HAVE BEEN GIVEN A RAFT OF PAPERS AND SAID SIGN HERE, SIGN HERE, SIGN HERE, OR SIGN THIS BLANK PIECE OF PAPER --

YOU LITERALLY SEEN THESE CASES --

YEAH.

SOMEBODY SIGNS THE PAPER THINKING THEY'RE GETTING HELP TO SAVE THEIR HOME WHEN THEY'RE SIGNING OVER THEIR DEED TO THIS FRAUDSTER.

AND THEN ONCE THEY HAVE THAT DOCUMENT SAYING THEY OWN THE PROPERTY, THEY'LL MORTGAGE IT, SELL IT, YOU KNOW, THEY'LL RENT IT OUT, DO ALL SORTS OF THINGS.

AND, YOU KNOW, IT'S VERY DIFFICULT TO GET THE PROPERTY BACK.

THE NEW THING THAT'S BEEN HIGHLIGHTED IN THE GRAND JURY REPORT TALKS ABOUT FRAUDULENT DOCUMENTS BEING RECORDED WITH THE CITY OF NEW YORK, AND OFTEN FOR PROPERTIES WHERE THE DEPARTMENT OWNER SEEMS TO HAVE PASSED AWAY OR ABANDONED THE PROPERTY, THE FRAUDSTERS IDENTIFIED IT AS A PROPERTY WHERE THERE'S NOBODY AT HOME, SO TO SPEAK.

AND THEY'LL --

JUST FAKED THE SIGNATURE --

THEY'LL CREATE A FORGED DOCUMENT, AND OFTEN THEY USE A NOTARY TO DO SO.

SO THEY'LL FORGE THE SIGNATURE OF THE REAL PROPERTY OWNER AND RECORD IT WITH THE CITY.

AND BASED ON THAT DOCUMENT, THEN THEY'LL GO OUT AND, AGAIN, EITHER SELL IT TO SOMEBODY ELSE OR, YOU KNOW, TAKE OUT FINANCING, YOU KNOW, DO WHAT THEY WILL.

AND AGAIN, AT THAT POINTS, IT'S REALLY, REALLY HARD.

WE'LL GET TO THAT WHAT CAN BE DONE, IN OTHER STATES WHERE PEOPLE ARE BEING SCAMMED OUT OF THEIR HOMES --

YEP --

IT SOMETIMES HAPPENS THAT CITY EMPLOYEES WITH INSIDE INFORMATION ARE COLLABORATING WITH THE FRAUDSTERS, GIVING THEM POTENTIAL TARGETS, FROR EXAMPLE HOMEOWNERS IN ARREARS IN PROPERTY TAXES.

IS THERE EVIDENCE THAT'S HAPPENING HERE?

NOT THAT WE'VE SEEN.

IN NEW YORK IT'S INTERESTING BECAUSE THE SHERIFF ACTUALLY WORKS OUT OF THE DEPARTMENT OF FINANCE.

AND SO WE HAVEN'T HEARD OF ANY INSTANCES WHERE THERE'S SOMEBODY AT THE PROPERTY RECORDING OFFICE THAT'S DOING THIS.

BUT IT'S -- THE DEPARTMENT OF FINANCE HAS PUT SOMETHING INTO PLACE WHERE THEY -- IF YOU SIGN UP FOR A NOTIFICATION SERVICE, THEY WILL ALERT YOU BY PHONE OR E-MAIL OR TEXT IF SOMEBODY IS FILING AN INSTRUMENT AGAINST YOUR PROPERTY.

BUT AGAIN, AT THAT POINT, IT'S KIND OF TOO LATE.

RIGHT.

IF THE CITY ACCEPTS THAT FRAUDULENT DOCUMENT.

SO THE D.A.'S REPORT CALLS THIS A GROWING EPIDEMIC.

YEAH.

HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN GOING ON?

WHEN DID IT BECOME AN EPIDEMIC?

YEAH.

WE'VE SEEN ISSUES WITH DEED THEFT AND PROPERTY THEFT GOING BACK ON TO THE EARLY 2000s WHEN THERE WAS THE FIRST PROPERTY BUBBLE AND THERE WERE A LOT OF FRAUDS USING STRAW BUYERS.

MORE ON THE PURCHASE SIDE LEADING UP TO THE MORTGAGE CRISIS.

SO I WOULD JUST SAY THAT WE'VE ALWAYS SEEN THIS KIND OF SCUMMY ACTIVITY IN NEW YORK CITY REAL ESTATE, BUT I THINK WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW IS THAT THE PROPERTY VALUES HAVE REALLY INCREASED, THE AGE OF THE NEW YORK CITY HOMEOWNER IS GOING UP, SO WE'RE -- WE'RE ALL AGING.

THE POPULATION AND A LOT OF FOLKS ARE AGING IS PLACE, SO THERE ARE MORE OLDER HOMEOWNERS WHO MAY BE MORE VULNERABLE.

A LOT OF TARGETS.

YEAH.

SO THE GRAND JURY REPORT HAS SOME RECOMMENDATIONS.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEY RECOMMENDATIONS?

THE RECOMMENDATIONS REALLY FOCUS ON PREVENTION, DETECTING, AND RESTORING PROPERTIES, AS WELL AS EASING PROSECUTION.

THE PREVENTION COME IS A REALLY HELPFUL FOCUS OF THE REPORT TALKS ABOUT CREATING RESOURCES FOR GROUPS LIKE THE CENTER AND OUR NETWORK PARTNERS TO COUNSEL AND DO OUTREACH TO HOMEOWNERS TO MAKE SURE THEY KNOW THIS IS AN ISSUE.

SO AS WITH A LOT OF ISSUES AROUND HOMEOWNERSHIP, YOU KNOW, EDUCATION UP FRONT IS SO IMPORTANT.

SO THE -- THE COMMUNITY OUTREACH WAS A PRIMARY RECOMMENDATION, AND OBVIOUSLY WE SUPPORT THAT.

IN THIS CASE, AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION REALLY DOES PAY OFF BECAUSE IT'S RELATIVELY CHEAP TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC, AND IT'S MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE TO TRY TO GET A PROPERTY BACK OR PROSECUTE.

ALL THESE THINGS PREVENT THE FRAUDSTER -- WHAT HAPPENS TO SOMEBODY WHO'S ALREADY BEEN DEFRAUDED?

DO THEY HAVE ANY -- ANY WAY TO GET THEIR PROPERTY BACK?

RIGHT NOW, YOU -- SOMEBODY WHO SUSPECTS THEY'RE A VICTIM OF THIS SHOULD ABSOLUTELY REACH OUT TO THE CENTER.

WE HAVE A WEBSITE CALLED HOMEHOMEOWNER HELPNY.COM.

WE HAVE TIPS, WE HAVE PLACES WHERE YOU CAN GO TO FILE A COMPLAINT, YOU SHOULD REACH OUT TO YOUR COUNTY D.A., YOU SHOULD REACH OUT TO THE ATTORNEY GENERAL'S OFFICE.

AND SO THERE'S -- THERE HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL PROSECUTIONS TO BOTH PUT PEOPLE BEHIND BARS AND GET PROPERTIES BACK.

WHAT THE -- THE GRAND JURY REPORT RECOMMENDS IS THAT THOSE -- THE TOOLS THAT THE PROSECUTORS HAVE BE STRENGTHENED SO THEY CAN GO AFTER PEOPLE AND PUT THEM BEHIND BARS.

SO THEY MAKE IT A -- A MORE SERIOUS FELONY TO RECORD THESE FALSE DOCUMENTS.

YEAH.

SO RIGHT NOW, YOU KNOW, REACHING OUT FOR LEGAL ASSISTANCE IS REALLY IMPORTANT.

AND THERE IS FREE LEGAL HELP AVAILABLE RIGHT NOW.

A LOT OF THE FUNDING FOR THAT IS AT RISK AT THE STATE LEVEL RIGHT NOW.

SO WE'RE PUSHING REALLY HARD TO GET FUNDING FOR HOMEOWNER SERVICES PUT IN THE STATE BUDGET.

BUT WE HAVE SOME OF THE BEST LEGAL SERVICES PROVIDERS IN THE COUNTRY IN NEW YORK CITY WHO CAN HELP FOLKS TRY TO GET PROPERTY BACK.

IT'S DIFFICULT.

THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT ISSUE.

THANKS VERY MUCH FOR JOINING US AND TALKING ABOUT IT.

A PLEASURE.

THANKS FOR FOCUSING ON IT.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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