How does AG James plan to fight deed theft? Going door to door.

January 13, 2020 Noah Singer
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Attorney General Letitia James went door to door in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Saturday to warn homeowners of the dangers of deed theft and to kick off a campaign to battle housing fraud in New York City.

The new Protect Our Homes initiative includes the formation of an interagency task force to target housing schemes, along with an education program for community workers and a dedicated complaint process for victims.

Deed theft is a type of fraud in which scammers forge deeds or trick homeowners into signing their own away. The thieves then seek to evict the homeowners and sell the properties to third parties.

More than 200 local volunteers joined James and other city leaders on Saturday afternoon to knock on doors in Bed-Stuy, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and Flatbush, alerting residents to the strategies of deed theft perpetrators.

Attorney General Letitia James displays an educational pamphlet about deed theft. Photo: Noah Singer/Brooklyn Eagle

A number of civic organizations were present at Saturday’s meeting, including the AARP, as deed thieves often target elderly or otherwise vulnerable homeowners. Elected officials present at the launch included Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, State Sen. Kevin Parker, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, Assemblymember Diana C. Richardson, Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Councilmember Robert Cornegy, Councilmember Farah Louis and State Comptroller Scott Stringer.

James visited homes on Macon Street, greeting residents who answered their doors and leaving educational flyers behind for others.

“There’s a significant number of vulnerable individuals who just don’t know where to go. And I want all of them to know that people care about them and that we are here to help,” said James.

New York City has received at least 3,000 complaints about deed theft since 2014, James said, 45 percent of which have come from Brooklyn. Currently, her office receives three to four reports of the crime each week.

The majority of the reports come from communities of color. In Brooklyn, those communities include Bed-Stuy, Flatbush, Canarsie and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, all of which are experiencing high levels of gentrification.

“For too many years, black homeowners have been targeted by unscrupulous players,” IMPACCT Brooklyn Director Bernell K. Grier said. “The initiative launched today by Attorney General James is a heroic and most needed effort to inform homeowners about deed theft and to provide tools to combat these scam artists and protect perhaps the greatest asset our families possess: our homes.”

Volunteers listen to instructions before departing to canvass. Photo: Noah Singer/Brooklyn Eagle

The Attorney General’s new task force brings together New York City district attorneys and the New York City Sheriff’s Office to coordinate law enforcement’s response to instances of real estate fraud.

Her initiative also includes plans to educate faith leaders, senior center workers, home help aids and others who regularly engage with potential victims of deed theft to identify warning signs and connect homeowners to service providers.

In communities that have experienced a history of systemic and systematic obstacles to the accumulation of generational wealth, loss of valuable real estate is especially devastating.

“Through tireless work and sacrifice thousands of workers have purchased homes to provide security, invest in the future and build some generational wealth against all odds,” said Williams, the city’s public advocate. “This is the property of black folks, who are losing their homes.”

Recent legislation that takes on perpetrators of housing fraud includes a law by State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblymember Helene E. Weinstein, and a Department of Financial Services investigation directed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Though Saturday’s kickoff focused on deed theft, fraudulent real estate practices also include lien fraud and misuse of HPD’s Third Party Transfer program. The Attorney General said her initiative will focus on all three.

“This is a warning to all those who think they can prey upon vulnerable populations and get away with it,” James said. “Deed theft is a heartless crime foisted upon people who worked all their lives to achieve a vital piece of the American Dream, only to have that dream become a nightmare.”

The new deed theft complaint process includes a dedicated email address ([email protected]), an online complaint form and a telephone help line (1-800-771-7755).

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