House-theft legislation

It’s too easy to steal a house in Philadelphia, so two city council members will introduce legislation Thursday requiring the city to check documents more carefully when people transfer properties.

“It’s crazy that the most valuable thing most people own in their lives could be transferred so easily,” said Councilman Bill Greenlee, who is sponsoring the proposal with Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez.

Their legislation would require city records department employees to verify that the person transferring a property deed is the actual owner.

“This bill will create some very common-sense protections to limit the damage done by stolen deeds,” Sanchez said. “Now there will be a clear obligation on the Department or Records not to record deeds where there are signs of fraud which can't be explained.”

The bill also requires that people who buy a property without title insurance saying they have done so knowingly. Title insurers check records to ensure that a seller is the clear owner of a property.

Mayor Nutter’s press office did not return a call seeking comment.
No one is sure how many houses are stolen yearly in Philadelphia, but it has been a longstanding problem in for many reasons. Acres of vacant properties make tempting targets for thieves, who forge documents to transfer buildings and land to themselves. Often, the real owners are dead, sick or simply not paying attention, and the criminals sell the property before they find out.

That often leaves two victims - the owner and the person who bought the property not realizing it was stolen.
Victims often have to go to civil court to get their homes back, though the District Attorney’s office has prosecuted some criminal cases recently.

In late April, Carlos Quiles was sentenced in common pleas court to eight to 20 years in prison, with 13 years of probation, for leading a ring of people who stole dozens of houses, mainly in the Kensington and North Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Nutter had signed legislation that Greenlee sponsored in 2008 aimed at requiring more thorough records checks when people sell properties, but Greenlee said it wasn’t strong enough.
The new proposal, he said, would mandate what the previous law only encouraged. - Miriam Hill
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