Eyewitness News investigation prompts reforms in city deed recording

Investigative reporter Sarah Wallace has details on scammers stealing homes from New York City homeowners.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
There has been a crackdown on deed fraud, after an Eyewitness News investigation on scammers stealing homes.

We first told you about the widespread problem of phony deeds in June.

New York City homeowners found out too late that someone had transferred their property, with a simple signature.

It turns out powerful people were watching Eyewitness News and they've made massive changes.

Deed fraud is huge. For a long time, there were virtually no protections to stop it at the front end.

Victims were left in a legal quagmire trying to prove they were the rightful owner of their own property.

Now, there are new protections and new investigations, by the day.

"It's been a living hell," said Jennifer Merin, who is still involved in a legal nightmare, 3 months after we first told you how her family home in Laurelton, Queens had been stolen in a phony deed scam; the locks changed, generations of memories trashed.

"What I'm looking at, Sarah, is estate rape," said Merin.

For years, it was so easy to commit fraud. You just had to walk into the Finance Department city register office, and if the documents looked legitimate, they were legally obligated to record the deed, no questions asked.

It turns out when first we aired Merin's story, and the case of Tony Jungit, another Queens phony deed victim in June, the city's new finance commissioner, the sheriff, and his investigators, were watching.

"Is it amazing to you that it was so easy?," we asked Chief Sheriff Investigator James Grayson.

"Absolutely," he said. "I had no idea until you broke the story; then the sheriff and the commissioner said, let's look into this and see why this is so easy."

So clerks were re-trained to red flag suspicious deeds before they get filed.

"Red flaggable is a problem with the notary public, problem with the signatures," said New York City Sheriff Joe Fucito. 'It's very easy to commit fraud, and that's where the Department of Finance is trying to put as many roadblocks as possible."

Sheriff's investigators are now making deed fraud a top priority. The volume of cases is huge.

"Since June of this year, the city register has identified about 300 fraudulent deed transactions that were attempted to be filed but we've stopped," said New York City Sheriff investigator Maureen Kokeas.

So far, Sheriff's investigators have arrested two people. They're looking into patterns...same title companies, same notaries, same attorneys involved in different transactions.

"I think there are several groups of individuals that are working together throughout the city. I don't think it's just one ring," said Kokeas.

It's believed both the cases of Tony Jungit and Jennifer Merin involve rings that are being investigated. Someone is finally paying attention.

"This should not happen to anyone else, Sarah," said Merin. The finance commissioner is pushing for new laws to add additional safeguards.
Related Topics:
realestate theft crime investigators investigations investigation real estate Laurelton New York City
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