New York Attorney General Letitia James on Saturday launched the “Protect Our Homes” initiative with a day of action to inform homeowners in Brooklyn about deed theft and other housing-related scams.
James said Saturday’s efforts are the first step in a campaign of coordinated prevention and enforcement actions to combat deed theft in New York City.
In addition, the attorney general announced the formation of an interagency taskforce to focus on deed theft and other housing fraud issues.
“Homeownership is the cornerstone of every community, but for decades, long-time homeowners in rapidly gentrifying areas have been the prime targets of schemes to steal their homes,” she said.
“Deed theft is a heartless crime foisted on people who worked all their lives to achieve a vital piece of the American Dream, only to have that dream become a nightmare,” she added. “My office is committed to working with our law enforcement and community partners to use a combination of education and enforcement action to help our neighbors protect their homes.”
James said deed theft has become a common tool of career criminals and unscrupulous real estate developers to illegally obtain real estate, “so they can sell it at a huge profit in high-demand housing markets like Brooklyn.
“This illegal scheme especially affects people of color, the elderly and other vulnerable homeowners who are being scammed into signing over the deeds to their homes to con artists,” James said.
She said deed theft usually happens when scammers forge deeds to look like they purchased the home, or when homeowners are tricked into signing their homes over to a scammer without knowing what they are doing.
Scammers then seek to evict the homeowner and sell the house to a third party at a significant profit, the attorney general said.
As a kick-off to Saturday’s initiative, James partnered with the Homeowners Protection Program (HOPP), AARP NY, elected officials and others to send more than 100 volunteers in the neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Flatbush.
James said volunteers knocked on doors and left informational materials about what deed theft entails, how to spot it, and what to do if one thinks one’s been a victim.
She said her office has created a “dedicated complaint process” for issues pertaining to deed theft.
Those who believe they have experienced deed theft are encouraged to call the help line at 1-800-771-7755, email deedt
James said constituent services staff are trained to intake complaints, do initial research and make referrals as needed.
The Office of the Attorney General is also developing a program to educate faith leaders, senior center workers, home health aides and others who regularly engage with potential victims of deed theft, so that they can spot the warning signs of deed theft, report these scams and connect the homeowner to trusted service providers.
Additionally, James announced the formation of an interagency taskforce that will include district attorneys in New York City and New York City Sheriff’s Office in an effort to coordinate the law enforcement response to deed theft and other issues pertaining to real estate fraud.
“Deed theft is considered by many the most harmful type of scam perpetrated against older New Yorkers of color,” said AARP New York State Director, Beth Finkel. “We made significant progress last year when the governor signed a new law to strengthen consumer protections for vulnerable homeowners.
“We are happy to join Attorney General James to launch this new initiative to educate potentially vulnerable homeowners about deed theft and ensure strong enforcement of this and other consumer protection laws, particularly here in Brooklyn, which unfortunately has become the geographic target of choice for scammers,” she added.
“IMPACCT Brooklyn is a proud and active member of the Homeowner protection program known as HOPP sponsored by the Office of the AG,” said IMPACCT Brooklyn Executive Director, Bernell Grier. “For too many years homeowners, particularly homeowners in Central Brooklyn have been targeted by unscrupulous players. They appear as solution providers during a time when a homeowner is most in need of help. This campaign initiated By AG James is a heroic and most needed effort to inform homeowners and provide tools to combat these scam artists and protect perhaps the greatest asset our families possess our homes. Today starts the campaign to preserve our homes.”
James said New York City received around 3,000 complaints about deed theft between 2014-2019, 45 percent of which came from Brooklyn.
The Office of the Attorney General said it receives three to four reports of deed theft a week, predominantly from Brooklyn, Queens, Northern Manhattan, and The Bronx.
Since 2014, the office said it has been investigating these issues stemming from complaints from HOPP partners about the rising numbers of deed theft and mortgage rescue scams.
On Jan. 8, 2019, Attorney General James announced the sentencing of Marilyn Sanchez who filed two fraudulent deeds and has active ongoing investigations into other complaints.
“Deed theft is an unconscionable evil striking the heart of Brooklyn depriving hard-working people of the single most important asset any American can hope to have: a home,” said Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, representative for the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn.
“I will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that all bad actors get the punishment they deserve and victims get the help they need to reclaim their homes, and am proud to be a part of this effort to help support our fellow Brooklynites to ensure that no one falls victim to deed theft again protecting the dream for us all,” added the daughter of Jamaican immigrants.
“I want to thank the Attorney General and my colleagues for making this a priority,” said NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. “We have to stop the craven targeting of our elderly, those facing financial trouble and immigrants in communities of more color by unscrupulous individuals.
“If we have to walk door to door with our partners to make sure homeowners who have sacrificed and worked tirelessly to purchase their homes are protected from the predators who would steal their security and investment in the future, we will,” added the son of Grenadian immigrants.
“Deed theft is the ultimate bait-and-switch, and steals homes right out from under residents who have lived in these neighborhoods for decades. Brooklynites deserve better than lies and confusion from bad-acting landlords who want to make a quick buck at the expense of our seniors and long-time residents,” said NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer. “I commend Attorney General James, District Attorney Gonzalez, and all the organizers and canvassers for all their efforts to organize and protect Brooklynites from this deceitful practice.”
“I’d like to thank our Attorney General, Letitia James, for continuing to shine a spotlight on deed fraud and letting people know how they can protect themselves from fraudsters who may try to steal their homes,” said Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. “As property values continue to dramatically rise, especially in Central Brooklyn, these thefts remain prevalent. Individuals who commit these crimes often target the vulnerable and elderly population, or steal the deeds to homes that appear abandoned.
“I will continue to aggressively prosecute these cases and I urge homeowners to protect themselves by registering with the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) so that they are automatically notified of changes made to documents associated with their property,” he added.
“Deed fraud has become a crisis in recent years, and rapidly-gentrifying communities of color in Brooklyn are the epicenter,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “People who spent years building equity, raising families, and making a life for themselves in their homes are now being forced out by unscrupulous actors seeking to capitalize on growing demand in areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and other neighborhoods.
“We must arm homeowners with the tools to identify deed fraud so they don’t get locked in costly court battles, and crack down on known fraudsters using every legal tool in our arsenal. I thank Attorney General James, State Senator Myrie, and Assembly Member Richardson for standing with me on the front lines of this fight to protect homeowners,” Adams added.