House theft: the latest scam in the neighborhood

Is there a greater or more valuable personal possession to someone than their car?

Yes. It would be their home.

Even if the owner is deceased or has otherwise left the house, most would want the house passed on to loved ones, not a bunch of crooks who stole the deed.

The FBI first reported this criminal scheme in 2008, calling it “the latest scam on the block” and coining the phrase “house theft.” The FBI described the crime as a kind of cybercrime cocktail, mixing identity theft and mortgage fraud.

The FBI said title theft can generally be boiled down to three steps: Thieves find a home they want to target. Thieves commit identity theft to impersonate the victim by creating supporting documents such as a fake ID or social security card. The thieves then use the appropriate channels to transfer the deed of ownership by falsifying the victim’s name and using the fraudulent documents.

Unfortunately, house theft is still prevalent today. On January 10, District Attorney Larry Krasner and his office’s Economic Crimes Unit (ECU) announced multiple charges against eight people for their role in a massive conspiracy to fraudulently obtain and transfer deeds involving 17 properties. located across Philadelphia.

Perhaps to offset widespread criticism that he is soft on crime, Krasner made a major production of his office dismantling what he described as a “significant deed theft ring.”

According to the prosecutor’s office, their joint investigation with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit began in June 2019, when complaints filed with the Philadelphia police were forwarded to the ECU. The properties, ranging from vacant lots to homes, including one owned by a woman in a nursing home, are located in Kensington, South Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia and Northwest Philadelphia. The thefts cost the owners over $900,000.

Seven suspects have been arrested but the alleged ringleader is still at large.

“The Economic Crimes Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, led by ECU Supervisor Dawn Holtz and Deputy Supervisor Kimberly Esack, continues to seek justice on behalf of communities plagued by rampant fraud,” said said Krasner. “This type of crime happens across the city, but more often than not it disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities. My office will continue to aggressively and appropriately pursue fee fraud wherever it occurs in Philadelphia. I am grateful to Assistant District Attorneys Dawn Holtz and Kimberly Esack, our hard-working DA Detectives, and Sgt. Andrew Jackson, formerly of the PPD Major Crimes Unit and now seconded to the DAO ECU, for conducting a very thorough investigation and bringing these suspects to justice.

Kimberly Esack, ECU Assistant Supervisor, added: “We can’t stress this enough: without the help of the public, we cannot prosecute these crimes. Law enforcement was only able to put an end to this network of scams with the help of the public. I want the residents of Philadelphia to know that we are here for you and if you suspect that you or someone you know may be the victim of fraud, please contact our Economic Crimes Unit today.

The FBI offers some advice on how one can avoid becoming a victim of deed theft. If you receive a payment slip or information from a mortgage company that doesn’t belong to you, whether your name is on the envelope or not, don’t throw it away. Open it, understand what it says, and contact the company that sent it.

From time to time, it’s also a good idea to verify all of your home’s information through your county’s deeds office. If you see documents you don’t recognize or a signature that isn’t yours, examine them.

Security experts suggest that landlords should be wary if they no longer receive bills or rent payments from tenants, or if they receive rising utility bills in vacant or secondary properties. You should also be suspicious if you receive information from a lender you have never done business with, receive foreclosure notifications, or learn of suspicious loans or new lines of credit in your name.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests that if you have any doubts, contact the companies where you have identified fraud. Place a fraud alert with the credit bureaus and get your credit reports. Report identity theft to the FTC. File a report with your local police department.

“When someone steals property, they’re not just stealing an item, they’re stealing a person’s safety. They take away a person’s past, present and future,” Esack said.

To report fraud or other types of economic crimes, including scams against seniors, crimes against workers, home improvement programs and insurance fraud, contact the DA Economic Crimes Unit at 215-686-9902.

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here weekly. He can be contacted via

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