How To Avoid Deed Fraud in New York City
The problem of deed fraud has become endemic in New York. Perpetrators of fraudulent deed transfers have swindled tens of thousands of homeowners out of their homes in the past few years, and the modus operandi of the perpetrator has become all too familiar. The scheme works like this: the culprit forges a homeowner’s signature on a deed which transfers title of the property to a new owner. The forged signature is then notarized in one of three ways: (1) bribing the notary agent to affix their stamp without checking state-issued ID; (2) employing a notary agent to perpetrate illegal activity; or (3) showing the notary public a fake ID in the name of the homeowner. If you have ever needed to get a document notarized, you probably remember the process as being a quick one. The agent’s duty is to simply check your ID – not verify its authenticity.
Deed fraud involves the transfer of title of a house, condo or co-op to a new owner. Although co-op stock transfers are less common, due to the heavy involvement of the building’s board and management in the transfer process, it still happens and often to the elderly or by family members. For condo, residential and commercial properties, the transfer process is simple. The culprit needs a signed deed by the previous owner, a notary public stamp, less than $200 to record the deed with the city register office, and he is the new owner of the property! The burden then turns to the previous homeowner to prove to the courts by clear and convincing evidence that the transfer was in fact fraudulent. Deed litigation requires money, health and time, and this is why the elderly or the low income are the most preyed upon. If you are a victim of deed fraud or simply taking precautions, read on below on how to be on the lookout.
The simplest and easiest way to check who is the record owner of a particular property is through the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS). You can view deed images for properties located in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, from 1966 to the present. This is the database for all deeds recorded in the four boroughs. Any property that was sold or transferred to a new owner from the year 1966 should have been recorded with the city register office, which in return shows up on ACRIS. The system is very user friendly in that you can search using the name of the owner or the property’s block and lot number.
If your search reveals an unauthorized transfer of ownership, contact a lawyer immediately. The statute of limitation to file a lawsuit to void the new deed based on fraud must be commenced within six years from the date of transfer. However, if you recently discovered the fraud and more than six years have passed since the transfer, you can still file a quiet title action within two years of discovery.
For illustration purposes, consider Jane who owns a home in Brooklyn. Title to Jane’s home was fraudulently transferred in June 2006. Jane does not learn of this transfer until June 2017 when she tries to obtain a home equity loan from the bank. Although six years have passed since the date of transfer, Jane has until June 2019 to file a quiet lawsuit in Supreme Court.
Taking Legal Action
An immediate standard response to deed fraud should be hire an attorney. Filling criminal charges against the perpetrator is not a done deal. Even if the person is convicted or pleads guilty, the deed remains in the new name. A conviction or a guilty plea is certainly helpful in such a high stakes civil lawsuit, but it does not automatically undo the transfer and is not very effective to the homeowner.
An option to the quiet title lawsuit, which can be very expensive, is to have an attorney write a demand letter to the wrongdoer requesting that they fix the wrong before a lawsuit is filed. If the evidence against the wrongdoer is ugly enough to warrant a criminal investigation, it would not be surprising for the culprit to sign a new deed transferring title back to the homeowner.
Making sure your Deed is Recorded
When buying real estate, make sure that your deed is recorded by the title company. Depending on the county where the home is located, it can take up to six weeks to see the deed up on ACRIS. The title company is in charge of submitting the deed and all accompanying tax forms with the city register office for recording. A copy of the filed deed is then sent to the buyer (ie new owner) by mail. Without a proper recording, a shady seller can sell the home to another buyer, leaving you with title issues.
In many instances, deed litigation arises when someone has passed and their estate is robbed of a considerable asset. In these cases, hiring a New York estate lawyer is crucial. Deed issues can be resolved in a probate proceeding in Surrogate’s Court. In cases where no one has died, an estate attorney or a deed fraud litigation lawyer can assist the homeowner in recovering title to their home.
If you are a victim of deed fraud, call us immediately. Our firm focuses on probate, estate and deed fraud litigation matters. Our consultations can provide a roadmap to solve this issue.
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