For more than two years, City Hall officials have known they were pretty much powerless to prevent the theft of hundreds of houses in Philadelphia by con artists who transfer deeds fraudulently. Despite the prosecution this past spring of a 13-year property theft operation resulting in a lengthy jail sentence for the ringleader, the city has yet to put procedures in place to stop other deed thefts.
Mayor Nutter’s aides have gotten better at flagging these scams — by notifying homeowners and mortgage holders that a deed has been transferred. So far, 442 suspect deed transfers have been referred to city prosecutors. But those steps do not prevent fraudulent deeds from being recorded, at which point the legal owners face a costly and arduous process in recovering their property through the courts. Homeowners in the inner-city neighborhoods most often targeted by these scams can be forgiven, then, for growing impatient with the pace of reform enacted by the Nutter administration.
A City Council hearing last week on legislation designed to strengthen safeguards against property thefts didn’t provide much hope, either. Records Commissioner Joan Decker came out in opposition to a proposal drafted by Council members William K. Greenlee and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. The Council measure would require Decker’s staff to verify that the actual owner of a property was transferring a deed. It would apply to less than 10 percent of all transfers — those not handled by title companies, insurers or lawyers.
That makes sense. But Decker told Council that state law and a decade-old court ruling bar city officials from delaying deed recordings. And that represents a maddening, Catch-22 situation for homeowners. As a flabbergasted Greenlee said to Decker, “You mean that no matter what junk is presented to you, you’re required to record it?” Decker insists the solution is to amend state law. That’s a Harrisburg strategy Nutter aides have been discussing actively only since the summer. One promising idea would be requiring a thumbprint on deed documents. So if nothing else, Greenlee’s proposal should be the catalyst for city officials to get off the dime and move aggressively on new rules to thwart deed thieves.