After her mother died, Jennifer Merin was left with the Laurelton, Queens, home that her family had lived in since it was built in 1930. Though it was not her primary residence, Merin described the home as a “sanctuary to my family.” It wasn’t until 2014, when she saw a large increase in her water bills that she suspected something might be amiss. Upon investigation, it appeared a man had taken up residence in the home and had been illegally transferred to the occupant the year before by someone named Edith Moore, who doesn’t exist. Eventually, through a yearslong legal challenge, Merin was able to get her home back. But the cost was high.
In the years leading up to and following the foreclosure crisis, the Center has worked with the New York Attorney General’s Office to protect homeowners from scams, and the state has enacted laws like the Home Equity Theft Prevention Act (HEPTA) and Distressed Property Consultant Law to prevent scams. But con artists have continued to find new ways to take advantage of vulnerable homeowners, as cases like Merin’s demonstrate. Now state lawmakers are taking notice.
A new package of bills introduced in the State Legislature would go further to prevent scammers from taking advantage of homeowners. The first, introduced by Sen. Letitia Walker and Assemb. Andrew Lanza, would require notaries to complete and keep additional documents when they notarize a land transfer. The bill is aimed at preventing deed fraud, which happens when someone illegally tries to take ownership of a home by filing a false deed against the property. By making the authority designating the transfer official do more to prove their oversight, fraudsters should find it more difficult to officiate illegal transfers. New York is hardly the first state to put the onus on notaries to limit the potential for fraud. In 1996, California began requiring its notaries to retain a fingerprint from the signers of any deed transfer they notarize.
Another bill introduced by Sen. Jesse Hamilton and Assemb. Helene Weinstein would target foreclosure rescue scammers. Under current law, professionals working to save homeowners from foreclosure can charge up-front fees if they are attorneys. However, it does not specify that lawyers must be providing foreclosure help. “Scammers just started getting attorneys to put their name on a case, but wouldn’t do legal work,” explained Caroline Nagy, Deputy Director for Policy and Research at the Center. This bill would require that attorneys provide foreclosure help if they are charging up-front fees.
This bill would also lower a significant financial barrier for victims trying to recover their homes after deed fraud. “Just because a scammer is prosecuted in criminal court doesn’t mean the homeowner gets their house back,” Nagy explained. “Civil courts require homeowners to post an injunctive bond. You’re putting a lot of money up so that a court can give you your house back. This serves as a barrier to recovery for most people, particularly those who are older, poorer, and at greater risk of foreclosure.” This bill would remove the bond requirement entirely, and would also give homeowners a longer period of time to rescind real estate transactions.
It’s been years since the foreclosure crisis set off a wave of scams, but its effects remain with us. Much like Ms. Merin, victims may get their homes back, but it’s not without great financial, emotional, and temporal expense to these homeowners. With hot real estate markets, complex systems, and limited transparency, we need to do what we can to keep up with the different ways scammers try to take advantage of vulnerable people and to protect homeowners before they lose their property. These bills are a great start.
Are you or someone you know in foreclosure? Do you believe you may have been victim of a scam or fraud? Call the New York Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection hotline at 1-855-466-3456.