Is there any personal possession bigger or more precious to one than their car?
Yes. That would be their house.
Even if the owner has passed on or otherwise vacated the home, most would want the home passed on to loved ones, not to a bunch of crooks who stole the deed.
The FBI first reported on this criminal scheme in 2008, calling it the “latest scam on the block,” and coined the phrase “house stealing.” The FBI described the crime as a cybercrime cocktail of sorts, mixing identity theft and mortgage fraud.
The FBI stated that home title theft can generally be summed up in three steps: Thieves find a home they want to target. Thieves commit identity theft to assume the victim’s identity by creating supporting documentation such as a fake ID or Social Security card. The thieves then work through proper channels to transfer the home deed by forging the victim’s name and using the fraudulent documents.
Sadly, house stealing is still prevalent today. On January 10th, District Attorney Larry Krasner and his office’s Economic Crimes Unit (ECU) announced multiple charges against eight individuals for their role in a wide-ranging conspiracy to fraudulently obtain and transfer deeds involving 17 properties located across Philadelphia.
Perhaps to offset the widespread criticism that he is soft on crime, Krasner made a major production of his office’s takedown of what he described as a “sizeable deed theft ring.”
According to the DA’s office, their joint investigation with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit began in June 2019, when complaints filed with the Philadelphia Police were provided to the ECU. The properties, ranging from empty lots to houses, including one belonging to a woman in a nursing home, are located in Kensington, South Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, and Northwest Philadelphia. The thefts have cost property owners more than $900,000.
Seven suspects have been arrested but the alleged ringleader remains at-large.
“The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office Economic Crime Unit, led by ECU Supervisor Dawn Holtz and Assistant Supervisor Kimberly Esack, continue to seek justice on behalf of communities plagued by rampant deed fraud,” said Krasner. “This type of crime occurs all over the city, but more often than not disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities. My office will continue to aggressively and appropriately prosecute deed fraud wherever it occurs in Philadelphia. I’m grateful to Assistant District Attorneys Dawn Holtz and Kimberly Esack, our hardworking DA Detectives, and Sgt. Andrew Jackson, formerly of the PPD’s Major Crimes Unit and now detailed to the DAO’s ECU, for conducting a very thorough investigation and for bringing these suspects to justice.”
Kimberly Esack, the ECU’s assistant supervisor, added, “We cannot emphasize this enough: Without the public’s help, we cannot prosecute these crimes. Law enforcement was able to shut down this deed fraud ring only with the assistance of the public. I want Philadelphia residents to know that we are here for you, and that if you suspect that you or someone you know may be the victim of fraud, please contact our Economic Crimes Unit today.”
The FBI offers some tips on how one can avoid becoming a victim of deed theft. If you receive a payment book or information from a mortgage company that’s not yours, whether your name is on the envelope or not, don’t just throw it away. Open it, figure out what it says, and follow up with the company that sent it.
From time to time, it’s also a good idea to check all information pertaining to your house through your county’s deeds office. If you see any paperwork that you don’t recognize or any signature that is not yours, look into it.
Security experts suggest that owners should be suspicious if they no longer receive bills or tenant rent payments, or if they receive rising utility bills at vacant or second properties. You should also be suspicious if you receive information from a lender that you’ve never done business with, receive notifications of foreclosure, or are notified of suspicious loans or new lines of credit in your name.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests that if you’re suspicious, contact the companies where you’ve identified an instance of fraud occurred. Place a fraud alert with credit bureaus and get your credit reports. Report identity theft to the FTC. File a report with your local police department.
“When someone steals a property, they aren’t just stealing an item, they’re stealing a person’s security. They’re taking away a person’s past, present, and future,” said Esack.
To report fraud or other types of economic crime, including scams against elders, crimes against workers, home improvement schemes, and insurance fraud, contact the DA’s Economic Crimes Unit hotline at 215-686-9902.
Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be reached via pauldavisoncrime.com