In New York City, white-collar criminals are fooling people into giving up their homes. Using a variety of schemes, these criminals literally get people to sign over their deeds to their houses. The thieves use so-called shell companies so that it is very difficult to figure out who exactly they are.
Once the homes are stolen, they are usually rented out or sold to third parties so that the criminals can have a nice payday. Millions of dollars have been made by criminals using these schemes. Many times the victims cannot even identify their criminals or even prove that a crime was committed.
The stealthy practice is known as deed theft, and it is certainly on the rise. It is the result of limited liability company laws that conceal the true owner of a property. By using random shell company names, it can be extremely challenging to track these criminals down. If one goes to the address listed for the shell company, they will typically find an abandoned building with nobody around.
The criminals often prey on vulnerable people who are behind on their debts. They promise to pay cash for a quick sale, only to turn around and escape with the deed. They use a hierarchy of business associates so that the true masterminds are never revealed. The criminals often use fake names, and sometimes they get away without having to give a name at all.
Lawyer Jennifer Sinton said, “Sham LLCs are a huge problem in terms of their lack of transparency, in terms of who is behind the property and who is behind these schemes.”
Officials from New York City say that they are currently investigating 120 different cases of home theft. These cases are difficult to address because of the secrecy provided to the companies. The city has started to warn property owners about the practice. People behind on their mortgages or in some sort of other debt are at the highest risk, since they are typically the most vulnerable.
Some thieves have been known to simply forge signatures. And of course, tracing the company name often does no good. The criminals make an impossible “maze” of company names to hide their identities. Common tactics also include using obscure post office boxes and phony addresses. Some criminals even construct false deeds.
Perhaps saddest of all is that the criminals prey on extremely downtrodden individuals. They focus on poor neighborhoods, scouring for people who desperately need quick cash. They scan for second mortgages and look for people in medical trouble. These are the people most susceptible to giving up their home with few questions asked. Statistics show that most victims of deed theft are lower-middle class blacks and Hispanics. And taking these predators down in court often proves to be an impossible task.
Lawyer Jomo Gamal Thomas said, “They’re shell companies. There’s no guarantee you’ll get your money back.”
Now authorities are on the lookout for the practice. They look for signs, such as deeds transferred for no or very little money to an obscure company and scribbled signatures that simply cannot be read.
So if you’re thinking of selling your home for quick cash, be sure to remain extremely vigilant. It’s never surprising what criminals will try to get away with. Now they’ll steal your home right out from under you.