Scams push fore­clo­sure fraud to limit, tak­ing vic­tims’ homes

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY MATT SEDENSKY

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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