Brooklyn deed theft trend spurs new state investigation

October 23, 2019 Kelly Mena
The handsome rowhouse pair at left is 1228 with 1230 Carroll St., then 1224 is paired with 1226 Carroll St., and so on from there.
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Homeowners in Brooklyn are getting some added muscle to protect their properties: a new state investigation into deed fraud and deed theft.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the state Department of Financial Services on Tuesday to look into the many instances of deed theft and deed fraud affecting communities of color in the borough following a “troubling report” The New York Times published on Monday.

“The illegal and deceptive actions to rob New Yorkers of their homes reported today are disgraceful and must be stopped,” said Cuomo. “Anyone found guilty of this repugnant behavior will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

The governor directed the department’s Foreclosure Relief Unit to provide assistance to homeowners who believe they may have been a victim of deed fraud or unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices in regard to the sale or attempted purchase of their home, according to a press release.

The issue of deed theft and deed fraud are not new to the borough; the issue has been the target of countless hearings, town halls and legislative action within the last year.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, alongside City Council member Robert Cornegy, Jr., who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant at the local level, first called for a full investigation into the issue in November 2018.

The town hall touched off tensions surrounding homes in gentrifying black and brown communities — particularly in communities of color and senior communities in Central Brooklyn, like Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Flatbush and Brownsville — being systematically stolen through deed theft, deed fraud, the lien system and the city’s own Third Party Transfer program.

“The extent of the crisis of deed fraud in Brooklyn became apparent to us when we held a public forum on housing last year at Brooklyn Borough Hall. Many homeowners shared horror stories of being victimized by fraudsters seeking to deceive them into signing away their property,” said Adams. “The action announced today by the governor is admirable, but too many homeowners in our borough have already fallen victim to these predatory schemes, forcing them out of their homes.”

Increasing property values over the last decade have led property predators to swarm on Central Brooklyn neighborhoods in a bid to cash in on the gentrification sweeping across the borough. Senior homeowners in particular have been targeted for their vulnerability to illegal schemes.

Just this past June, Dairus Griffiths, a 65-year-old owner of a historic brownstone, was allegedly tricked into selling his property while under the influence of alcohol. Griffiths sold his home — which his family says is worth $1 million — for a mere $630,000. Griffiths’ daughter, Doris Briggs, who has power of attorney in her father’s case, claims the Governor’s Office hasn’t reached out to her personally yet.

Her lawyer, Theresa Trzaskoma, has been in contact with the state. Trzaskoma told the Eagle that Griffiths case is complicated, but that she gave the state all of the information on the case and “they are on it.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams meet Dairus Griffiths outside the home Griffiths claims he was tricked into selling far below market rate. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams meets Dairus Griffiths outside the home Griffiths claims he was tricked into selling far below market rate. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

Griffiths case is still pending in court, but his claims led to multiple community meetings, including a massive town hall led by New York State Attorney General Letitia James. James has said her office receives more deed theft complaints from Brooklyn than all the other boroughs combined — with Bed-Stuy representing the epicenter of the “crisis.”

James convicted a 49-year old woman in January for deed theft of two residential properties in Brownsville and East Flatbush, respectively. The same month, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez charged a man with stealing his elderly neighbor’s East New York home and later trying to sell it.

Gonzalez has prosecuted 22 cases of deed theft since 2016, with 14 ending in convictions and eight still pending, according to his office.

“With so many distressed homeowners lacking access to trusted advocates to help them avert foreclosure, the single most important step the state could take to protect New York homeowners would be to assure continued, permanent funding for nonprofit housing counselors and legal services providers staffing the Home Ownership Protection Program,” said Jacob Inwald, director of foreclosure prevention at Legal Services NYC. “Without these advocates, New Yorkers have no one to turn to for help except the scammers.”

HOPP is a statewide program aimed at helping individuals avoid foreclosure. The program was most recently funded to the tune of $130 million from the Attorney General’s Office’s Foreclosure Rescue Scam Prevention Initiative.

Most recently, a slew of reforms to ban behaviors connected to deed theft were signed into law in August, alongside a streamlined way for fraud victims to win back possession of their property.

The measure dubbed “The Deed Theft Bill,” prohibits practices including the harassment of financially distressed homeowners from unscrupulous “consultants” claiming to lend a hand, and also makes it easier for victims of fraud to regain their lost property.

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