Make deed theft a crime, say NY Democratic lawmakers and Attorney General Letitia James

Originally published in Daily News

ALBANY ― Attorney General Letitia James and state lawmakers want to crack down on deed theft, a crime in which con artists steal homes and real estate — often by deceiving elderly people or residents of minority neighborhoods.

A pair of bills in the Legislature could strengthen protections and remedies for victims by establishing deed theft as a crime and bolstering the attorney general’s ability to prosecute it, their advocates said Thursday.

Under current law, deed theft can be difficult to prosecute or prove since unwitting homeowners are often tricked into signing off on legally-binding documents. Prosecutors are often left charging fraudsters with crimes such as grand larceny, which critics say fails to convey the gravity of the situation.

The new measures proposed by James’ office and sponsored by Sens. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan) as well as Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) would create a crime of deed theft and strengthen civil statutes to help combat scams, James said.

“No one’s home should be stolen by a scammer without warning or reason,” James said in a statement. “This legislation will provide real and necessary changes to our civil and criminal laws to stop the perpetrators of these crimes and provide the protections and remedies needed to keep people in their homes.”

The New York City Sheriff’s Office counted nearly 3,500 complaints of deed theft throughout the five boroughs from 2014 through 2023, including more than 1,500 complaints in Brooklyn and 1,000 in Queens.

“Too often, state government has been unable to prevent or prosecute this destructive crime. I’m grateful to our Attorney General and my colleagues for introducing strong legislation to protect homeowners in Central Brooklyn and across the state,” Myrie said.

The new legislation would help the state better track the issue by calling on the Department of Criminal Justice Services to collect statewide data on deed theft crimes.

The measure will also extend the statute of limitations for felony criminal prosecution of deed theft from five years to eight years, allowing for more time to identify and investigate cases.

Scammers often either forge a homeowner’s name on file in a county clerk’s office or con a victim into turn over their property and deed. The fraudster can then evict the homeowners and either sell or attempt to take out loans against the property.

The second bill would enable prosecutors to file a legal action on properties where a deed theft has taken place or is suspected, which acts as a sort of legal “red flag” on property records.

“This type of fraud often takes advantage of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, literally ripping their homes away from them and profiting greatly from the equity seized,” Weinstein said.