New York Attorney General Letitia James, State Senator Brian Kavanagh, State Senator Zellnor Myrie, and Assemblymember Helene Weinstein today announced new legislation.
The new legislation is to strengthen protections and remedies for victims of deed theft and bolster the Office of the Attorney General’s (OAG) ability to prosecute these crimes. Deed theft is a growing problem that predominantly targets Black and Brown homeowners, and under New York’s current laws, opportunities for prosecutors to hold deed thieves accountable are limited. The two bills — one addressing criminal challenges and the other focused on changes to civil laws — would establish a crime of deed theft and help keep New Yorkers in their homes.
“No one’s home should be stolen by a scammer without warning or reason,” said Attorney General James. “Victims of deed theft are often older adults and people of color who are asset-rich but cash poor. Homeownership is a stabilizing economic force for their families and loved ones, and deed theft robs them not just of their family home, but of their most significant financial asset and the community they have known for their entire lives. 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. I want to thank State Senator Kavanagh, State Senator Myrie, and Assemblymember Weinstein for their partnership in these critical efforts to keep New Yorkers in their homes.”
“At our public hearing in October 2022, my colleagues on the Housing Committee and I heard harrowing, infuriating testimony about the all too common crime of deed theft,” said State Senator Kavanagh, Chair of the Senate Housing Committee. “We learned a lot about how it works, and about how difficult it is to prevent, prosecute, or undo under current laws and real estate practices. We’ve been working diligently since then and we are prepared to act. I thank my colleagues on the Committee for their leadership and engagement, especially Senator Myrie; Attorney General James for putting her own powerful voice and her office’s considerable resources and expertise behind this effort; Assemblymember Weinstein for her long commitment to this issue and her sponsorship; and the many public agencies and officials, legal services organizations, and housing advocates who testified and provided input. Most of all, I thank the people who have come forward, at our hearing and in other settings, with their often painful stories of falling victim to this insidious crime. It is for all those who have been robbed of their home and whose communities have been targeted — and for all those at risk of suffering a similar fate — that we must act now.”
“At the Senate’s hearings on deed theft last fall, we heard from many homeowners and their families who lost everything to scammers, fueling an exodus of longtime New Yorkers from the communities they’ve lived in for generations,” said State Senator Myrie. “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.”
“I have been fighting to help hardworking homeowners in stay their homes for many years, and in particular, against the awful form of fraud known as deed theft,” said Assemblymember Weinstein. “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. I have sponsored deed theft legislation in the past, but it is clear that the Attorney General and our District Attorneys need better tools to stay ahead of the fraudsters. I am particularly pleased and grateful that Attorney General Letitia James has devoted ample resources to the fight against deed theft and am proud to join her in her efforts to fight these cruel thefts.”
Deed theft occurs when someone takes the title, or deed, to another person’s home without the homeowner’s knowledge or approval. It has become a popular tactic used by scammers to illegally obtain ownership of a property, and disproportionately impacts elderly homeowners and homeowners of color, especially Black and Brown homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods.
From 2014 to the present, the New York City Sheriff’s Office counted nearly 3,500 complaints of deed theft throughout New York City, with more than 1,500 complaints in Brooklyn and 1,000 from Queens. Deed theft scams are not just limited to New York City. Throughout the state, District Attorneys in Albany, Erie, Monroe, and Onondaga Counties have reported recent active deed theft complaints. As part of the legislation, the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services would collect statewide data on deed theft crimes, which will further aid efforts to combat this scam.
The most common ways scammers steal deeds are through forgery or through fraud. In cases that involve forgery, scammers fake the real homeowner’s signature on a deed and file it with the county clerk to make it look like they bought the property. In cases that involve fraud, homeowners are tricked into unknowingly signing over their homes to a scammer. These thieves then often evict the homeowner and sell the property at a significant profit.
Under current law in New York state, deed theft itself is not a crime, and there are not adequate protections in place to slow down or stop a deed theft in process. Today Attorney General James, State Senator Myrie, State Senator Kavanaugh, and Assemblymember Weinstein are introducing two pieces of legislation that would address these issues by creating new criminal and civil legal provisions to increase enforcement opportunities and help keep New Yorkers in their homes.
S6569: OAG Program Bill sponsored by State Senator Myrie
1) Establish a Crime of Deed Theft
Challenge: Currently, the only factor that determines the severity of a deed theft is the value of the stolen property. This is limiting as it fails to evaluate whether or not a property is someone’s home or livelihood. Some judges and prosecutors have even stated that they are not aware of deed theft.
Change: This legislation addresses those current limitations by amending the Penal Law to establish a crime of deed theft:
- Deed Theft in the Second Degree, a Class C Felony: Theft of one real property.
- Deed Theft in the First Degree, a Class B Felony: Theft of one residential real property or the theft of two or more real properties. The maximum penalty for Deed Theft in the First Degree would be a mandatory sentence of one to three years in prison, up to 25 years.
2) Grant OAG Criminal Jurisdiction
Challenge: OAG does not have jurisdiction to prosecute criminal deed theft cases without a referral, and sometimes referrals can be difficult to secure when a homeowner’s complaint is submitted directly to OAG.
Change: The legislation grants OAG concurrent original jurisdiction to prosecute deed theft crimes alongside District Attorneys throughout the state.
3) Extend the Statute of Limitations
Challenge: Too often, victims of deed theft are not aware of the crime until after it has occurred. Under the current statute of limitations, OAG and prosecutors are forced to either rush investigations or lose the ability to prosecute the case under criminal law.
Change: This bill extends 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.
S6577/A6656: Sponsored by State Senator Kavanagh and Assemblymember Weinstein
1) Void Good Faith Purchaser Protections
Challenge: Under current law, once a scammer has obtained the deed to someone’s home through forgery or fraud, there are very few legal remedies available to homeowners and prosecutors to stop or reverse the fraud. For example, if a scammer illegally steals the deed to a person’s home and then sells it to an innocent third party unaware of the scam, that new buyer is considered a “good faith purchaser.” The law protects the new buyer’s right to the property they purchased, regardless of how the seller, or scammer, obtained the property. As a result, homeowners who have been evicted as a result of a deed theft scam are often unable to get their homes back, even if the court finds the scammer guilty of deed theft.
Change: This legislation enables 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 the property’s records. If a scammer then attempts to take out a loan against the property, banks or title insurance companies will see the red flag and know not to provide a loan. This provision would also eliminate a potential good faith purchaser’s protected claim to the home, as they would have encountered the red flag in attempting to buy the property from the seller, and therefore would have known they were buying a home from a seller whose ownership was in dispute.
This legislation also includes a provision to void good faith purchaser protections. Typically, when a home is sold and the deed is transferred legally, the rightful homeowner and seller either pays off the rest of the existing mortgage on their house with the funds from the sale, or the mortgage is transferred to the new owner. When scammers illegally steal the deed to a home, the homeowner’s mortgage is often not paid off, as the home was stolen, not sold. In cases where a third party purchased a property where the mortgage was neither transferred nor paid, this legislation would void that buyer’s claim to the property, enabling it to be returned to the rightful homeowner.
2) Stay Eviction Proceedings
Challenge: Currently, if a scammer has stolen the deed to a home and attempts to evict the rightful homeowner, that eviction case will go to housing court. Housing court looks at the facts of any given eviction case and cannot determine whether or not the evictor is actually the rightful owner of the property. This is how many victims of deed theft end up forced out of their homes.
Change: This legislation would make it possible to keep New Yorkers in their homes and stay an eviction proceeding in housing court when the rightful homeowner can show reasonable evidence that there is an issue with the title of the property or a potential deed theft in progress. Homeowners would be able to pause their evictions in housing court until the suspected deed theft case has been litigated.
3) Expand Existing Protections
Challenge: The Homeowner Equity Theft Prevention Act (HETPA) allows homeowners in distress the opportunity to cancel any contract to sell their property, whether they signed it knowingly or a scammer took advantage of their vulnerability. These protections are currently only available to homeowners whose properties are in foreclosure or on the tax lien sale list, but not to homeowners whose properties are on the utility lien sale list.
Change: This legislation includes a provision to expand the protections of HETPA to include homeowners with active utility liens.
“For years, I have been fighting to get stronger laws in place that protect homeowners from deed theft and punish the criminals who target them. And thanks to Attorney General James’ leadership and these two bills, we have a chance of finally holding criminals and scammers accountable,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams. “Deed theft is a predatory crime that scams working New Yorkers, families, and seniors out of their homes — denying the American dream to those who have worked hard all their lives to achieve it. As Brooklyn borough president, I led the charge against deed theft. And, as mayor, I will not accept a city where renters and homeowners, especially Black and Brown renters and homeowners, are scammed out of the chance to build wealth for their children and grandchildren. These bills build off work that the city and the state have already begun, including through the Protect Our Homes taskforce with the attorney general, our DAs, and the New York City sheriff. Hard-working New York City homeowners are having their dreams stolen by criminals, but, together, we are restoring those dreams.”
“Combatting real estate fraud has been an important priority for my office and our successful prosecutions of scammers has helped reduce the number of deed fraud complaints in Brooklyn by more than half between 2021 and 2022,” said Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. “But homeowners need more protections in both civil and criminal courts, which is why I support this proposed legislation, which gives prosecutors more tools to hold offenders accountable and make victims whole. I commend Attorney General Letitia James, and the bill sponsors, Senator Zellnor Myrie, Senator Brian Kavanagh, and Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, for their work on this important legislative package.”
“As the value of Manhattan real estate skyrockets, so does the prevalence of residential real estate fraud. This issue impacts economic stability and cultural diversity. Establishing a crime of deed theft will allow my Office’s Housing & Tenant Protection Unit to continue rooting out bad actors,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. “Deed fraud affects the most vulnerable New Yorkers, and predators can brazenly snatch someone’s home away with a few clicks of a mouse. I commend Attorney General James and the sponsors of these bills for protecting homeowners and introducing these needed reforms.”
“In the three years I have been in office, we have restored five homes to their rightful owners. Before then, there wasn’t even a unit in the Queens district’s attorney’s office to handle deed fraud,” said Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz. “That is not because my predecessors did not care about deed fraud, but because the investigations are extraordinarily complex and there were simply not enough dedicated resources. With a Real Estate Theft Unit in place, within my Housing and Worker Protection Bureau, we have begun to successfully address this long-standing problem. This new legislation will allow my office and others to continue to fight back against scammers and identity thieves. I applaud Attorney General James for her initiative in fighting back against this ruinous financial crime.”
“Homeownership is one of the biggest milestones for many individuals and families, setting the foundation to generational wealth for many. However, it can also make you a target for deed theft by scammers,” said Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso. “As common as deed theft is, we need laws that will safeguard the livelihood and stability of our Black and Brown communities — those most likely to be victims of deed theft, criminalizing these acts. Thank you to Attorney General James for her advocacy and work around this important issue that impacts far too many families in our communities.”
“Deed theft doesn’t just rob someone of their home, it upends their lives and often forces them into spending their entire life savings to regain possession of their house,” said Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, Chair of the Committee on Housing. “Around the state, everyday New Yorkers, seniors, immigrants, and others are being preyed upon by scammers who have made it their mission to steal assets from the most vulnerable. I applaud Attorney General James for her attention to this issue and for working with the Legislature to craft a package of legislation to hold deed theft perpetrators accountable and protect homeowners from this traumatizing experience.”
“We are not doing enough to protect long term homeowners, especially black and brown ones, from predatory scams,” said Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest. “No one should ever have to learn that their home has been stolen from them. I applaud the Attorney General for her action on this issue and look forward to working with her to protect New York homeowners from this vicious crime.”
“Deed theft is a serious and growing problem in New York, particularly in Brooklyn,” said Assemblymember Brian A. Cunningham. “All people and families should have the ability to attain and pass down generational wealth without it being targeted, especially Black homeowners that have been previously excluded. We need better protections for homeowners from predatory lenders and deed theft throughout our state. I’m proud to say that the sweeping changes we have enacted will add new safeguards for them and allow good faith buyers to recoup financial losses from fraudulent deals, while holding unscrupulous lenders criminally liable.”
“Deed theft is among the most heinous crimes frequently committed in Brooklyn,” said New York City Council Member Chi Ossé. “Its perpetrators take advantage of the elderly and vulnerable and destroy hard-earned generational wealth. The historically Black neighborhoods I represent, Bedford-Stuyvesant and North Crown Heights, are disproportionately targeted, as the hard work and cultural vibrancy of their communities have caused real estate values to skyrocket in recent years. For too long, the government has lacked the necessary tools to combat deed theft. Thankfully, that will change. I commend Attorney General Letitia James, Senator Zellnor Myrie, Senator Brian Kavanagh, and Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein for producing this legislative package and for their commitment to this fight. The people of Brooklyn should know that we have their backs and that protecting their homes is our top priority.”
“In Central Brooklyn, deed theft is all too common. Headlines frequently recount the properties stolen from long-time homeowners through deed theft scams that ultimately and too often displace residents from the very communities they helped foster and the homes they spent a lifetime nurturing for the benefit of their families’ future generations. This predatory practice is an existential threat to the wellbeing of our City’s Black and brown neighborhoods,” said New York City Council Member Crystal Hudson, Chair of the Committee on Aging. “It has specifically targeted our older neighbors, and it has long gone unchecked. Today, Attorney General James has taken a significant step to curb these abuses and give power back to the people who have made our communities what they are. The three bills announced this morning will empower long-time homeowners to protect and stay in their homes. They will establish a crime of deed theft, holding predatory real estate speculators accountable to the furthest extent of the law, and they will help families more easily retain their deeds when they have been targeted. Our communities deserve these bills. Their very existence depends on it.”
“Deed theft is predatory real estate at its worst and targets our most vulnerable homeowners,” said New York City Council Member Sandy Nurse. “We have seen one too many deed theft cases in our district and it’s a daunting task for dispossessed homeowners to win back their property. I thank Attorney General James, Assemblywoman Weinstein, and Senators Myrie and Kavanagh for pushing these crucial pieces of legislation to make it easier to win back title and help stabilize Black and brown communities.”
“Attorney General Letitia James has long been a leader of equitable homeownership in New York and continues to advocate for the resources that protect low-income homeowners and their homes against foreclosure, scam prevention, and deed theft,” said Christie Peale, CEO and Executive Director, Center for NYC Neighborhoods. “The state needs to continue funding for the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP), which has helped over 150,000 families be able to afford to stay in the homes they worked so hard to buy. Helping families of color stay in their homes — and the communities that they have invested in for years — is a crucial element to reducing the racial wealth gap and stabilizing our communities. We applaud Attorney General James for providing tools that protect our homes and enforce legal action against predators trying to snatch long-term generational wealth from New York families.”
“Deed theft and foreclosure rescue scams prey on homeowners and their efforts are getting more sophisticated — to the detriment of families and communities across New York,” said Kirsten E. Keefe, Senior Attorney and Program Director for HOPP Anchor Partner Program, Empire Justice Center. “We applaud Attorney General Letitia James and the legislative sponsors for their efforts to strengthen the state’s ability to investigate and prosecute crimes against homeowners. The first, best line of defense against deed theft is the Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP), which gives homeowners access to reputable services, however, New York needs additional tools to combat these bad actors. We urge the New York State Legislature to pass these important protections that will deter scams and bring justice for those whose homes and equity have been stolen.”
“We are grateful for Attorney General James’ steadfast support for New York’s struggling homeowners and her efforts to combat deed thefts and other scams that prey on New York’s most vulnerable homeowners, typically targeting the elderly and communities of color,” said Jacob Inwald, Director of Foreclosure Prevention, Legal Services NYC. “We appreciate Attorney General James’ consistent efforts to maintain funding for the Homeowner Protection Program, a network administered by her office that provides vital services to struggling homeowners across the state and is our most important tool in combatting deed thefts and other scams. We look forward to working with the Attorney General’s Office on efforts to advance consumer protections in New York so homeowners have a way to fight scams and have remedies for unfair practices so they can get the justice they deserve.”
“NHS Brooklyn thanks the Attorney General for the new legislation put in place to protect homeowners from deed theft, an issue that threatens the displacement of homeowners in our communities,” said Tonya Ores, Executive Director, NHS Brooklyn, CDC Inc. “Deed Theft disrupt and displace families, and wipe away generational wealth. Strong legislation provides homeowners with the protection needed to stay in their homes and preserve our communities.”
“At BKA, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a surge in deed theft cases, though these scams have been a persistent issue since the 2008 recession,” said Tamara del Carmen, Consumer and Economic Advocacy Program Director, Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A. “With another housing recession looming, it is imperative to quickly pass legislation to increase protections and pathways for resolution for those at risk of and impacted by deed theft, including those most targeted: seniors, low-to-moderate income, and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) homeowners. We thank Attorney General Letitia James for her leadership and commitment to protect homeowners against deed theft.”
“We as legal service providers on the ground have witnessed the terrible disruption and loss that the predatory practice of deed theft causes,” said K. Scott Kohanowski, Director of Homeowner Stability Project, City Bar Justice Center. “Even when we identify the crime and the perpetrators, it can be incredibly difficult to right the wrong and return the victims to their homes and prior lives. This slate of proposals by the Attorney General is an important and necessary step to helping these homeowners and we are grateful for the Attorney General’s leadership to combat deed theft.”
Attorney General James has taken significant action to protect New York homeowners and combat deed theft. In December 2022, she announced the indictment of five members of a deed theft ring for allegedly stealing three homes worth more than $1 million in total from elderly, vulnerable homeowners in Queens. In February 2021, Attorney General James announced an $800,000 grant, funded by OAG settlements, to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods as part of a program aimed at increasing awareness of deed theft in vulnerable neighborhoods. In January 2020, Attorney General James launched the Protect Our Homes initiative and announced the formation of an interagency law enforcement task force to respond to Deed Theft and other real estate fraud. In January 2019, Attorney General James announced the sentencing of a Brooklyn scammer for Deed Theft of two homes in Central Brooklyn.
New Yorkers who believe they are a victim of deed theft are encouraged to contact OAG by calling 1 (800) 771-7755, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or filing a confidential complaint online.
The Homeowner Protection Program, a network of housing counselors and legal services providers throughout New York supported by OAG, offers free housing counseling and legal assistance statewide. Homeowners can contact HOPP online or call 1 (855) 466-3456 to get help.