The Mansion Snatchers

Once upon a time in 2020, a Texas couple named Maria and Michael bought a $5.75 million-dollar waterside home in Redington Shores, Florida. They had no idea the deed had already been transferred to the Aura Church — by forgery.

A forged need carries a fake signature (or several) and a notary stamp. The forger typically has it recorded by a county or city recorder of deeds. This was the case here. The notarial acknowledgements were faked, and so were the witnesses’ signatures, according to those whose names were used. The lawyer who supposedly prepared the deed? Well, even lawyers can be victims of identity theft.

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Amid New York City’s Rampant Deed Theft, One Victim Wins

Residential units in New York City

Brooklyn property values are going up. And there are plenty of opportunists looking to steal deeds. In the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn in New York City, Dairus Griffiths just triumphed over those opportunists.

In the past decade, Brooklyn has lost many of its Black and Hispanic residents, as gentrification reshapes the district. Serial fraudsters and their limited liability companies aren’t making life any easier for longtime residents. They scour public records for the most vulnerable and indebted homeowners.

Deed cheats use the shell company structure to blur the identities of holders. The manipulators lie to their targets; they forge deeds; and they move houses from one LLC to the next. Identifying and charging these manipulators becomes very hard to do.

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“Particularly Insidious”: Update on House Theft in Philadelphia

Person walking into a house carrying a newspaper and a soft briefcase.
Deed fraud and house theft are particularly insidious crimes because they not only impact the home’s real owner and often their family, but also sap generational wealth from them as well as their communities, driving poverty and desperation.
— Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner, quoted by NBC10 Philadelphia on March 22, 2021.

Something strange happened in Philly early in 2014. The late Norman Johnson signed a deed from the grave, transferring a South Philadelphia rowhouse for only $15,000 to Amen Brown. Dawn Presbery, the daughter of the deceased and the home’s real owner, fought for two years to recover the deed.

In some cases like this, the D.A. prosecutes, and the person named on the deed ultimately has to sign a new deed to restore the title to its rightful owner. Here, the forgery was pursued in the criminal courts, but the case against Brown was thrown out.

Brown claims to have parted with the $15,000 at the urging of a scammer on Craigslist. But regardless of Brown’s story, as Max Marin noted for Billy Penn, it’s astonishing that even criminal charges didn’t induce Brown to return the house title to its rightful owner.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas finally ordered the forged deed returned to Dawn Presbery. Later, with remarkable chutzpah, Brown won an election to Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, assumed office on December 1, 2020, and set out this year to pass tough-on-crime bills and to defend the rights of homeowners to keep their homes.

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Can Hackers Take the Title to Your Home?

Know the Signs. Prevent Identity Fraud.

Imager of a shadowy figure in front of a computer screen with programing code on it. Captioned: Know the Signs. Prevent Identity Fraud.

The title to your home is a precious document. It proves that you own your home and that you may borrow money against your home equity. Can internet hackers take it from you?

Cybercriminals are highly sophisticated. In 2020, they were able to hack into top cybersecurity firms that do business with the U.S. government. Three years earlier, hackers got into a credit reporting company’s database. The Equifax breach exposed personal details of about 143 million people.

Assume that your social security number, birth date and other key identification numbers may have been exposed at some time. And if you’ve had the deed to your home recorded, your signature is in a database, too. But while we all could be vulnerable, knowledge is power. Here’s what to know about how title snatchers work, and how to safeguard your identity and your homeownership.

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