What to Know
Last year, the number of people in Philadelphia who claimed to be victims of deed fraud jumped by more than 70 percent, city data shows.
An NBC10 investigation found that between 2013 and 2017, the city averaged 72 fraud reports per year. That number climbed to 136 in 2018.
The city Records Department, which tracks deed transfers, only ensures appropriate paperwork has been turned in and notarized.
Curtis Simmons still remembers the place his grandfather lived until his death in 2002: a small building he owned in the Graduate Hospital section of Philadelphia that held a modest apartment a garage workshop.
“He was the type of person who didn’t need a lot of extras,” Simmons said.
When his grandfather lived on South 20th Street, the neighborhood was mostly black residents and Center City’s development boom had not reached the block, Simmons said. But that started to change several years ago, prompting Simmons to reconsider his vision for the space.
He wanted to turn the building into condos and found a buyer who was ready to pay $400,000. But when Simmons visited the city records department, he made a shocking discovery.
Simmons no longer owned the property.
“It’s stunning,” the 50-year-old said. “That’s the only way to say it.”
A Philadelphia records clerk showed Simmons a notarized sales agreement that had already transferred the property deed to a property investor for $150,000. Simmons did not receive any of that money, he said.
“It’s a forgery,” Simmons said. “It’s clearly a forgery.”
Simmons is not alone. Last year, the number of people in Philadelphia who claimed to be victims of deed fraud jumped by more than 70 percent, according to City of Philadelphia data. Fraudulent transfers of property disproportionately affects low-income communities and those of color, according to advocates. The elderly are also particularly vulnerable.
An NBC10 investigation found that between 2013 and 2017, the city averaged 72 fraud reports per year. That number climbed to 136 allegations in 2018.
Part of the problem is oversight. The Philadelphia Records Department, which tracks deed transfers, only ensures appropriate paperwork has been turned in and notarized. No further verification is necessary under Pennsylvania law.
In fact, once a deed transfer form is completely filled out and notarized, the city records department is obligated to accept it, attorney Bill Tinter said.
“They don’t have handwriting experts or any of that,” he said. “It’s not their responsibility.”
These types of fraudulent schemes can be easy to carry out because they often target properties that are not currently occupied, like the one belonging to Simmons. He is now facing a lengthy and costly legal battle to reclaim the home that was bequeathed to him in 2010, Simmons said.
“It’s a problem I never should have had,” he said. “And it wasn’t a problem of my making.”
Homeowners aren’t the only victims — developers can also fall prey to larger real estate conspiracies. Logan Kramer, who rehabs homes in Breweytown and then flips them, said he lost about $25,000 to a man now facing various forgery, fraud and related offenses.
William Johnson is accused of stealing seven houses in North Philadelphia with deeds containing fake signatures of dead owners or aging "sellers,” the District Attorney's office has charged. His bail is set at $51,000, about the same price he sold a stolen house in 2017, according to Philadelphia resident Beverly Strickland. Her late father’s home was resold for $50,000 without her family’s consent, she said.
Another 91-year-old woman lost her house when her name was forged on a deed in 2017.
“You have dead people and their heirs, as the owners, who are victims,” Kramer said. “Unless their heirs are paying attention to what’s going on with the properties, nothing usually gets caught until years down the road.”
That is a problem city leaders aim to fix. In 2010, Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who represents Philadelphia's 7th District, and Councilman-at-large Bill Greenlee authored bills to require the city deeds office to ask for identification from potential filers. In the case of someone who is an heir, that person would need to present signed letters from the city register of deeds. But a notary can be faked with a stolen or fraudulent stamp.
NBC10 spoke with a notary public whose signature had been forged. She was shocked after seeing a document bearing her stamp, which had not been stolen but instead replicated.
“They have the stamp and it looks legit, but I never notarized anything like this,” Cynthia Harmon said. “I’m a victim, too.”
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has been investigating William Johnson since March, District Attorney Larry Krasner said. The charges were the result of a prolonged investigation by his office’s renewed economic and cyber crimes unit. A predecessor, who Krasner declined to name, made it a policy to only go after deed fraud cases involving 19 or more units, he said.
“Imagine a world where we only went after car thieves when they hit No. 20?” Krasner said. “Unless we change things, it will be more difficult to go buy groceries with your credit card than it is to get away with house fraud in Philadelphia.”
What You Can Do
Most people with mortgages are required to have title insurance, which should protect from deed fraud. Homeowners whose properties are vacant should regularly visit the building and collect mail to avoid the attention of would-be thieves.
You can also check your county’s property records online to be sure nothing has changed without your approval. If it has, contact city officials immediately.