Philly steps up fight against deed fraud with new tools

Rowhouses line North 29th Street in Philadelphia. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Rowhouses line North 29th Street in Philadelphia. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

The City of Philadelphia has unveiled a new online tool that aims to combat deed theft, a growing problem in the city.

Philadelphia has a history of unscrupulous actors looking to cash in on rising property values by effectively stealing real estate by forging deeds or misleading owners. In instances where legal owners are absent, elderly or deceased, the scam may not be detected until after a fraudster has already flipped land for profit –– creating a legal nightmare.

The new system, dubbed “Fraud Guard,” is an email notification system that would send an alert when a given name appears as party to official real estate documents filed with City Hall and view any related documents at no cost.

Mayor Jim Kenney said the new system aims to give property owners a heads up about transactions filed in their name but without their consent.

“We’ve seen an increase in property theft,” Kenney said Wednesday. “I’m confident the tools we’re going to talk about today will assist us in our ongoing efforts to eliminate this terrible crime.”

Users would have to voluntarily register with the system to receive alerts and follow up with the city if they detected a fraudulent transaction. The city currently notifies owners of deed via mail service. But listed mailing addresses may be out of date or owners otherwise unreachable.

Legal aid groups that assist indigent wage theft victims, like the nonprofit Community Legal Services, hailed the new system.

“Family homes that have been owned for generations can be stolen with the stroke of a pen. It’s totally bananas,” said CLS attorney Michael Froehlich. “But the tools announced today will help property owners detect potential deed theft earlier than ever.”

Historically, few such cases have been prosecuted locally. But Cameron Kline, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said the DA is stepping up enforcement. About 20 investigations involving roughly 100 properties have been initiated since the start of 2018, and  50 cases have gone to prosecution, Kline said.

“Since DA Krasner took office, he has made the complicated work of the Economic Crimes Unit, especially combating lost and stolen homes and deeds, a priority,” Kline said. “In addition to increasing staff, the unit has nearly doubled the number of investigations and prosecutions.”

Krasner recently charged two foreign nationals with 200 counts of forgery, fraud, and other crimes links to a string of deed thefts.

However, despite renewed attention from the media and elected officials in recent years, the city has so far made limited headway against property poachers. Commissioner of Records James Leonard said that 136 theft cases were reported in 2018. The city is on track to meet or exceed that count this year, with 111 cases reported to date.

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