Deed fraud is a serious problem in Philadelphia. That’s no secret. What can the city, particularly the Recorder of Deeds Office, do? It turns out a lot. Let’s talk numbers. Deed fraud reports to our office spiked in 2018 by more than 70 percent to 136. Between 2013 and 2017, we averaged 72 fraud reports per year.
In 2019, homeowners submitted 118 deed fraud reports. At that rate, we
will receive about the same number in 2019 as 2018. While we don’t
anticipate an increase over 2018, which is encouraging, the numbers
remain too high.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story. Who are the victims? Deed fraud
disproportionately affects people of color and the elderly, often the
city’s most vulnerable residents.
Thieves forge the owner’s and often the notary’s signatures, record the
fraudulent deed, and steal the home. By the time the fraud is
discovered, the house may have been sold multiple times, maybe to an
unsuspecting developer who flips it.
Where does that leave victims? Homeowners face years of costly court
battles to recover their most precious asset, often a family home passed
down for generations.
Our office collaborates with many partners to develop solutions. Over
the last year, we’ve worked with legislators, government agencies, the
Philadelphia Bar Association’s Fraudulent Conveyance Task Force, the
DA’s Office, etc.
We’re taking a three-part approach:
First, we are better educating homeowners and providing them with modern tools to combat fraud.
Last month, we announced a new website: www.phila.gov/deed-fraud. It contains FAQs to assist homeowners and a form to report deed fraud.
We also released our free online service Fraud Guard. Anyone can
register. If a deed or mortgage is recorded in your name, you’ll receive
an email alert within about 30 days. Sign up at our website, listed
The sooner homeowners discover fraud, the sooner it can be corrected,
often at less cost than if the fraud goes undetected for longer. Fraud
Guard helps speed that discovery — so every homeowner in Philadelphia
should sign up.
Second, we developed innovative methods of collecting information to support law enforcement.
For example, we now track the name of every notary appearing on a deed
or other recorded document. This assists law enforcement in identifying
notaries whose signatures are forged or possibly fraudulent notaries.
The public soon will be able to access this online.
In several months, we will implement a web-based system that better
tracks individuals recording deeds over the counter. We will continue to
scan those individuals’ photo IDs, take their photos, and now obtain
digital images of their signatures.
Third, we are exploring options to prevent deed fraud before it occurs.
This is more complicated. State law is very strict on when a recorder
can refuse to record a deed. Fraud is very difficult to detect up front.
Nonetheless, we must be creative and open-minded.
This could mean seeking changes in state law, perhaps in the way
notaries’ identities are validated on deeds in Philadelphia. We also are
working on a way to confirm before recording a deed whether a thief has
forged the name of a deceased owner.
The efforts will not end there. The city and our partners remain
committed to fighting this terrible crime. We owe the public no less.
James P. Leonard, Esquire, is commissioner of the Philadelphia Records Department.
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