Philadelphia man charged with stealing 14 homes through deed theft

Kimberly Esack addresses the press from a DAO podium

Kimberly Esack, assistant district attorney and assistant supervisor of the DAO Economic Crimes Unit, detailed charges against five people accused of illegally transferring properties in North and West Philadelphia at a press conference on March 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A Philadelphia man allegedly stole 14 houses around the city using fraudulent deeds, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Tyree Burno, 42, has been arrested and charged with assuming ownership of homes located in West Oak Lane, Logan, Frankford, Cedar Brook, and Mt. Airy neighborhoods, either in his own name or using a series of fake names.

Such fraud is fueled by a white-hot real estate market, said Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack, with the office’s Economic Crimes unit.

“Oftentimes, the neighborhoods targeted are ones seen as up-and-coming, where gentrification is prevalent,” she said. The victims, often the elderly, may not have the financial means to fight a protracted legal battle to get back what is legally theirs, continued Esack.

Deed theft is a recurring problem in Philadelphia. In March, five people were charged for taking 10 homes, and in 2019 city officials unveiled a tool called Fraud Guard to crack down on the thefts. City officials continue to urge homeowners to sign up for the program, which alerts you when a document is recorded with your name on it.

Law enforcement first learned of the Burno case when a 71-year-old woman complained that her home had been improperly sold in 2019. From there the case grew, with officials eventually charging him with more than 80 counts of theft and 42 counts of forgery for the taking of 14 homes and two lots, as well as leasing two buildings unlawfully and forging four checks.

This is how the scenario often plays out, according to assistant district attorney Dawn Holtz. An elderly person may move out of a house they own, or pass away, leaving the home unoccupied. Deed fraudsters keep an eye out for houses where there is no activity, casing the neighbors for information, and create fake deeds to take over ownership of the home. They then sell the home to an unsuspecting buyer, and profit the returns.

The Philadelphia Police Department, the Department of Records, the District Attorney’s Office and elected officials are all involved in stopping these thefts. District Attorney Larry Krasner said such collaboration is necessary “to wipe out what has frankly been a mini-epidemic for quite some time of stolen houses in this city.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal