State’s top cop shares tips to prevent your house being stolen

July 31, 2019 Kelly Mena
A Bed-Stuy block. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan
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Due to rising property values in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, fraudulent schemes have been on the rise, targeting vulnerable individuals — seniors, communities of color and those in financial strife, according to Attorney General Letitia James.

James, the state’s top law enforcement officer, organized a town hall with Central Brooklyn’s local and state officials Tuesday at Restoration Plaza to share information about the loss of black and brown home ownership, which she said is hitting crisis levels — and provide tips to protect homeowners.

“Someone contacted me while I was sitting at my desk about three weeks ago. He was frantic and witnessing someone on Malcolm X in Central Brooklyn being harassed by three individuals, urging that individual to sign over their home to them,” James said. “I’m hearing these stories over and over again about deed theft, fraud and about individuals who are engaging in tactics basically swindling people out of their brownstones in Central Brooklyn.”

The real estate market has been particularly strong in black brownstone Brooklyn, where a large majority of homeowners are “equity rich but cash poor” — their house is worth millions, but their financial position is solidly middle class.

Left to right: Attorney General Letitia James, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Bureau Chief of Public Integrity for the Attorney General’s Office Travis Hill and Jacquelyn Griffin of Brooklyn Legal Services. Eagle photo by Kelly Mena

“Now some folks in our community, because of deed theft and other issues connected to the intensity of socioeconomic gentrification, are at risk of becoming victims of their own success,” said U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries at the event.

The combination has led to a housing crisis as the local community is being forced to protect their homes and each other from predatory individuals and tactics.

“This community, without a doubt, what we are seeing here and in other parts of New York City is gentrification on steroids and individuals are just taking advantage of that,” James told the Brooklyn Eagle.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, other neighborhoods feeling the brunt include Crown Heights, Flatbush and Brownsville. Earlier this year, James noted that that her office receives more deed theft complaints from Brooklyn than from all of the other boroughs combined.

“There is an assault on black and brown communities as it relates to the accumulation of wealth through property ownership,” said City Council member Robert Cornegy Jr.

Tuesday night’s session aimed to arm homeowners in the community with the basic information needed to simply be aware that they are being targeted by illegal schemes.

The group stressed documentation awareness and bill payment awareness in particular having property owners regularly check the Automated City Register Information System — also called ACRIS.

The public site allows for property owners to check on any new mortgages or changes to their deed simply by putting in a street address or block and lot number. The site is public and accessible to anyone.

Central Brooklyn property owners attend a deed theft town hall in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Eagle photo by Kelly Mena

“The first thing everyone has to do tonight and I hope they take away from this meeting, is go home and file with ACRIS because the moment someone tries to move your deed or do any kind of modification on your home, you get notified,” said Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

The lawmakers also gave out tips and hints to quickly spot scammers.

“It’s the year 2019. If the person you’re dealing with is legitimate, they should have the trappings of legitimacy. They should have an office, a copy machine or a fax. And you should get copies of everything you sign so you know exactly what you signed,” Assistant District Attorney Richard Farrell Chief of the DA’s Real Estate Fraud Unit said at the meeting.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, the main tactics being used by “bad actors” include the forging of signatures and the making of false promises.

“Sometimes in desperate situations people don’t make rational decisions … Be wary of individuals offering quick fixes. There’s never a quick fix,” said Travis Hill, Bureau Chief of Public Integrity for the Attorney General’s Office.

Other panel members also highlighted the need to reach out early when it comes to housing issues and not when foreclosure or a scam has already been in the process.

“But please reach out early. The earlier you reach out to us with a question, the sooner we can help you solve it and the much more likely that we will be able to nip something in the bud,” Christie Peale, CEO and executive director for the Center for NYC Neighborhoods said to the room.

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