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Instant Background Checks on Sellers Proposed to  Limit Rampant Home Theft Scams

May-04-08

You wouldnít think something as big as a house would be easy to steal, but Philadelphia City Councilman William Greenlee says 124 homes were stolen that city in 2006 alone. The city now sees that many reports of stolen homes in a single month. Greenlee believes that requiring recorders to conduct Instant Background Checks on sellers could stem the flow of what the Federal Bureau of Investigation has called the 'fastest growing white collar crime in America'.

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With this rising scam, criminals search publicly accessible county and municipal websites, find out which homes are not occupied and who owns them, fill out inexpensive deed forms with copied signatures, and have themselves declared the new owners of the property. Once this somewhat simple process is complete, the new so-called owners of the property may either resell it to unsuspecting buyers or take out a new mortgage -- eventually disappearing with the money. Once the fraud is brought to light the actual property owner, the unsuspecting buyer and lender are left with an expensive legal battle on their hands.

Greenlee has introduced a bill he hopes will tighten control over real estate property titles in Philadelphia.

Greenlee's office tells tales of a man's returning from summer vacation to find someone living in his house, and a soldier's house being sold from under him while he served in Afghanistan, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Many of the properties have been neglected, or their owner has died. Under Greenlee's proposal, the City Records Department would be required to conduct a Instant Background Check for every deed transfer, verifying that the seller who appears on the deed is actually the owner of the home.

The bill also requires that proper documentation be included with every deed, that it be delivered in person, and that the Records Department notify the record owner by mail that a new deed has been recorded.

The Records Department actually started notifying owners last year, and the policy has resulted in between 125 and 175 new reports of fraud a month, according to Greenlee's office.

A Rapidly Spreading Problem

The problem isnít unique to Philadelphia. Deed fraud is a growing problem throughout the country as more government agencies make private information available over the Internet. The occurrence of deed and mortgage fraud cases increased 91.5 percent between 2003 and March 31, 2006, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The agency credits the problem with fraudsters' use of modern technology such as online publication of deed records.

A few examples:

Michigan

An investigation by Wayne County Register of Deeds Bernard J. Document Fraud Task Force led to the sentencing of a Detroit man who used the Registerís records to create a virtual forgery factory involving 43 properties.

 

New York

Last year, a married couple living in Brooklyn was charged with stealing the personal identity of a 41-year-old man to fraudulently take out more than $1 million in mortgage loans.

 

Texas

James and Paula Cook left their home due to work and family emergencies and returned to find someone else living in their home who to be the rightful owner of the property. Mrs. Cook said the signature in her maiden name on the bogus deed was her handwriting but not from that document. Mrs. Cook's maiden name, driver's license number and signature were found on the Denton County Web site.

 

Indiana

Dorothy Ard, a court official who acts as the pre-trial services supervisor in Lake County, Indiana discovered that her own name appeared on forged documents filed within the county recorder's office.

 

Washington

James Andrew Ryan pleaded guilty to using names, signatures, and notary seals he found through  county records to steal homes using forged quit claim deeds.

 

Florida

Investigators acknowledged criminals used images published by counties online to steal hundreds of homes.

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