“Deed Theft” Is a Crime, Says New York Legislature

Bill Passes, Awaits the Governor’s Signature

On June 24, 2023, New York’s lawmakers passed a bill to create the crime of deed theft and help New Yorkers hold onto their homes. The state’s Attorney General, Letitia James, has been vocal about the need for new legislation to help keep New Yorkers in their homes.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh and Assembly member Helene Weinstein sponsored the legislation. The lawmakers drafted it in direct collaboration with A.G. James herself.

“This legislation provides the Attorney General the tools needed to protect homeowners at risk of displacement,” A.G. James said in a press release, adding: “[W]e look forward to the Governor swiftly signing this bill into law.”

Elders and Minorities Are the Most Victimized in Deed Crimes.

Deed thieves use trickery, pressure, or forgery to transfer someone else’s property deed.

A.G. James explained that homeowners, “especially older adults and people of color,” usually don’t know when deed theft occurs, and “only find out when they are forced to endure humiliating and terrifying situations to try and keep their own houses.”

Reforms enacted in the new bill, if signed into law, will help these people fight off “the criminals who try and steal their deeds, their wealth, and their American Dream,” according to A.G. James in a press release.

The new provisions establish the crime of theft of real property. They put consumer protection provisions in place to help innocent homeowners. They provide guidance for suspending foreclosures pending deed theft investigations. And they assist in restoring title to the rightful homeowners.

As for the humiliating ordeals the A.G. spoke of, the new provisions will keep scammers from benefiting and victims from being further harmed in local court hearings.

What Are the Highlights? From This Year On…

If the governor signs these new provisions:

  • Prosecutors will be empowered to record legal red flags with the city or county recorder of deeds. This will give prospective lenders a heads-up before they consider financing applications involving deed transfers under investigation.
  • The traditional “good faith purchaser” claim to the title will not hold up for a buyer who takes title from a deed thief. The legal red flag will notify prospective buyers that the seller’s legitimacy is questionable.
  • Victimized homeowners will keep their rights to recover their titles through voiding the deed in question or initiating quiet title actions.
  • Victims will be able to stay in their homes and hold off evictions. They will need to show believable evidence that deed theft has affected them.
  • Evictions could be placed on hold while the suspected cases of deed theft are investigated and litigated. This is a key shield against scenarios in which deed theft victims are forced to comply with evictions initiated by the scammers. It’s also meant to stop ill-gotten deeds from being quickly transferred to new buyers — which has long allowed bad actors to profit quickly and move on to the next opportunity.

In addition to all of the above, New Yorkers would have better recourse to title-saving help through the Home Equity Theft Prevention Act. The Act lets homeowners stave off home sales by cancelling contracts where the owners have been unable to pay off liens. The improved law will help keep New Yorkers facing hardship from losing their home equity to tax sales or foreclosures.

Under the Current Attorney General, New York Has Forged a History of Putting Pressure on Deed Fraud.

The Attorney General’s “Protect Our Homes” initiative became effective in 2020. A new interagency law enforcement group specifically set out to deal with the house-stealing phenomenon.

Since that time, several strong messages came out of the Attorney General’s office related to deed crime. Among them were these milestones:

  • In February 2021, the Office of the Attorney General issued grant money to support a public awareness campaign on deed theft, focused on gentrifying and low-income areas of New York.  
  • In December 2022, the Attorney General’s office indicted five alleged deed theft ring members. The indictment alleged that a mortgage professional and others improperly transferred three homes that belonged to vulnerable Queens residents. The ring’s activity was described as a stet-up in which members posed as elder or deceased homeowners. After taking the titles, the ring would sell them.

Tamara del Carmen, with Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation, has told reporters that house thieves have been “persistent” since the 2007-09 recession. And over the past decade, New Yorkers have reported thousands of deed transfers occurring against the homeowners’ wishes.

While deed fraud can and does show up in all parts of the state, Brooklyn and Queens in New York City have been especially hard hit. This has led to an NYC-centric focus in New York home deed protection provisions to date.

Melinda Katz, as the Queens District Attorney, has also been taking the matter seriously. Katz oversees a unit dedicated to real estate theft. Katz’s office has recovered titles for several victimized homeowners.

How to get help for a deed fraud emergency in New York: Another helpful development for New York deed holders? They now have access to a Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP). It offers advisers and legal assistance statewide at no charge to New Yorkers in need of help. If you are in this position, the numbers to call are 800.771.7755 and 855.466.3456.

Deed Fraud Is a Crying Shame. New York’s On the Case.

We have noted before how scared people can rightly feel about the risk of their titles being pulled out from under them. After all, home title crimes can result in the actual losses of homes, forever in some cases. What’s more, these crimes have kept many homeowners from passing along generational wealth.

Opportunistic companies have stepped into the legal void to sell “title locks” of questionable value.

 Taking advantage of anxious homeowners? Find out what happened when legal authorities and investigative TV reporters looked into one “title lock” company.

What do homeowners really need? Solid protection from the legal community for their valuable home deeds. In New York, they’re getting it.

Hats off to the New York State Legislature for passing this bill in both the Assembly and the Senate, as A06656/S6577. Once enacted, the new provisions will better equip every level of law enforcement with better tools to head off bad actors, and help people keep their homes.

Supporting References

Office of the New York State Attorney General Letitia James; New York State Attorney General Press Release: Attorney General James Applauds Passage of Legislation to Protect New Yorkers From Deed Theft (Jun. 20, 2023).

WNYPapers.com: Attorney General James Applauds Passage of Legislation to Protect New Yorkers From Deed Theft (Jun. 21, 2023)

The New York State Attorney General’s Facebook Page (Jun. 24, 2023).

New York State Senate: Bill S6577 (2023).

Brad Finkelstein for NationalMortgageNews.com (an Arizent brand): New York Looks to Strengthen Deed Theft Laws (Apr. 28, 2023).

Denis Slattery for New York Daily News: Make Deed Theft a Crime, Say New York Democratic Lawmakers and Attorney General Letitia James (Apr. 27, 2023).

Deeds.com: New York’s Attorney General Gets Tougher on Deed Thieves (May 17, 2023).

And as linked.

Photo credits: Library of Congress via Picryl.com (public domain); and LoveBuiltLife, via Pixabay.