The Philadelphia Police Department and District Attorney’s Office announced charges against five individuals in an alleged deed theft ring, one of the first major prosecutions over an issue that has plagued Philadelphia for years.
Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack, from the office’s Economic Crimes Unit, said a couple worked together to forge fraudulent sale records. The pair — Richard Harris Bey and Dineisha Harris Bey, a notary — allegedly conspired to transfer the ownership of 10 North Philadelphia rowhouses into their own names or those or other individuals.
“These perpetrators would literally steal a house out from under someone or their family or estate,” Esack said. “It causes the victims or their families to not only suffer the loss of that property, but also the legal burden of trying to get that property back.”
The investigation, a joint effort between law enforcement and the city’s Department of Records, began after a complaint was lodged in May 2019 over an illegal property transfer.
None of the homes were occupied at the time of the fraudulent transfers. But District Attorney Larry Krasner said the alleged thieves sought to flip or lease the homes for profit.
“It’s not just that the houses get stolen, it’s that the thieves move people into those houses who might have no idea the houses were stolen,” he said. “They write leases as if they were the owners.”
Richard Harris Bey and Dineisha Harris Bey, along with alleged co-conspirators Robert Foster, Damian Urquart, and Lance Felder, face multiple counts of theft, forgery, and related charges.
According to the DAO, deed theft is a growing problem in Philadelphia, particularly in neighborhoods with residents who are on the lower end of the income spectrum, owing to a myriad of issues including historical property abandonment, poor recordkeeping and tangled title issues, and the city’s increasingly lucrative real estate market. Typically, fraudsters focus on neglected homes with elderly or deceased owners, where unauthorized transfers are less likely to be noticed.
Local state Rep. Donna Bullock said the issue siphoned valuable assets away from residents in neighborhoods with elevated poverty rates.
“They’re stealing much more than a property,” she said. “They’re taking away from that family’s memories and legacy. They’re stealing wealth from that community and that family in particular.”
The saga is not over. The DAO indicated that the rightful owners must now work through the city’s civil courts to restore possession over the fraudulently sold homes. Krasner encouraged local law firms to contact his office to provide pro bono time for victims of deed theft.
The Department of Records has introduced tools to help flag fraudulent sales and begun requiring the presentation of government-issued identification to finalize the transfer process. But Esack said that while the recent arrests were a victory, she acknowledged the problem was much larger than this single ring.
“It’s becoming much more prevalent because it’s such a quick payout. We’re investigating a few right now,” she said. “The complaints just keep coming in.”
Individuals with information about potential deed theft should file a police report and contact the DAO Economic Crimes Unit.