Scams push foreclosure fraud to limit, taking victims’ homes
NEW YORK | The phone call came as Raymond Murray neared the bottom of his luck. His wife had died, his career had been ended by injuries, and struggling to get by on his disability check, he had scraped together just enough to pay a lawyer to avoid imminent foreclosure on his modest Brooklyn home.
The man on the phone offered a godsend: The foreclosure could be averted, the legal fees could be eliminated and the monthly mortgage payment he could no longer afford could be trimmed.
Soon Mr. Murray was sitting at a conference room table in the man’s office, finalizing the fix he believed would keep him in his home. It didn’t take long for the sad truth to become clear: This aging immigrant was scammed out of his home.
Around the United States, deed theft has emerged as one of the most sophisticated and devastating frauds ever to menace homeowners.
Foreclosure “rescue” scams that have stolen thousands of dollars from individual homeowners in the years since the housing collapse have been pushed by savvy perpetrators to their limit. They use lies to persuade the desperate to sign over their title, then force them into homelessness or a yearslong legal battle.
“The scammers are no longer content with stealing $5,000. Now they want the whole house,” said Dina Levy, who heads the Homeowner Protection Program in the New York attorney general’s office, which has spread word about deed theft and prosecuted culprits.
Deed theft has been reported around the U.S., from San Diego, where prosecutors recently netted a guilty plea and six-year prison sentence for a man involved in deed thefts of at least 15 homes, to Detroit, where the register of deeds hopes to expand his fraud unit to keep up with a crush of cases.
The problem has been most severe in gentrifying neighborhoods quickest to rebound from the housing crisis, nowhere more so than ever-pricier blocks of New York.
The New York sheriff’s office has taken a lead on the cases and, since 2014, the office has amassed more than 1,700 complaints, with hundreds under investigation, and some 32 arrests already tallied.
Sheriff Joseph Fucito ticks off the ways the thefts happen, from opportunists cobbling together documents on vacant properties to those transferring the home of an unwitting family member into their name, to fake housing assistance businesses that prey on those in financial crisis.
“You can just wake up,” Sheriff Fucito said, “and it happened on a piece of paper.”
Mr. Murray came to New York in 1989 from his native Guyana, working as a telephone technician and then a police traffic control agent. He and his wife, Desrie, a teacher, lived in a relative’s basement, then rented a home before saving enough to buy. It wasn’t much — a two-story brick house with a white metal gate on a quiet, tree-lined Brooklyn street — but he felt like he finally could see what he’d been working for.
“It was an American dream,” the 67-year-old said.
Attorney Robert Seewald (right) is helping client Raymond Murray try to stay in his home after a scammer sold it illegally out from under him.