It took just 90 minutes for them to steal the Empire State Building. The signed, witnessed, and notarized documents were given to the clerk, who examined the documents, and submitted them to be recorded in the New York County Clerk’s office. The building, worth around 2 billion dollars at the time, was quietly transferred to Nelots Properties, LLC., in a transaction not much different than the average homeowner’s.
The clerk wasn’t required to look into the identities of the parties, make any investigation into potential fraud, or even check that the notary stamp was legitimate (it wasn’t). In fact, the clerk didn’t seem to notice that the witness to the sale was Fay Wray, the actress who starred in the original 1933 movie classic, and was carried to the top of the Empire State Building in the film. Wray could not possibly have signed the deed, since she had died four years earlier at the age of 96. The buyer corporation, “Nelots Properties” (“stolen” spelled backwards), was non existent. The notary was Willie Sutton, a name shared with a notorious bank robber from the early twentieth century. Sutton had died in 1980, not that anyone would trust him with a notary license.
But as it turned out, the fraudsters were really just Daily News reporters doing an investigation into how easily it might be to steal a property and record a deed. Within a few hours they reversed their transaction.
But despite this high profile heist, there was absolutely no immediate change in how New York City handled deed and mortgage recordings. For example, in July of 2022, a man in Queens, New York received an email confirming an update in contact information for his late mother’s mortgage – a change he didn’t make. When he contacted the mortgage company, he was told the loan had been paid off back in October of 2021. He then went to his mother’s house and saw construction workers throwing his personal belongings – including irreplaceable family photo albums – into a dumpster.
Upon investigation he discovered that on Nov. 8, 2021, a fraudulent deed was recorded in the New York City register showing a sale for $530,000 by Jorge Vasquez “as sole heir” of the deceased property owner. The buyer was listed as 23-41 100th Street Corp. – with Vasquez as the chairman and sole shareholder. According to the Queens District Attorney, Vasquez obtained the victim’s mother’s social security number and used a fake death certificate (with the wrong year of death) to perpetuate the scam. The Queens man was a victim of deed fraud.
Deed fraud, also called title fraud, occurs when someone files a bogus transfer, and/or mortgage lien without the owner’s consent. It can be a forgery to an innocent third party, or a simple cash out mortgage.
When a deed or mortgage is presented, clerks are required to make sure all documents are in order on their face. This just means that they are complete and in order with no errors of form. For example, they may check for a notary signature and stamp where it should be, but they don’t stop to look up whether the notary has a valid license. They don’t conduct background checks of the parties. No searches are done to see if any corporations involved exist. There are no routine contacts to sellers to see if they ever authorized the sale.
So in most real estate scams, the true owner is unaware of the scam until they attempt to:
In some situations the owner did sign the documents, but they’re later altered for recording. Homeowners often incorrectly assume that any time there’s a filing on their title, such as a lien, the county clerk will routinely mail them a notice. This is not the standard practice. In the case of the Empire State Building, the true owners were never going to be notified by the clerk.
Why Doesn’t Standard Title Insurance Protect an Owner Against All Deed Fraud?
Title Insurance protects a buyer in that it insures against a problem in the chain of title. Mortgage title insurance protects against having to pay off liens that weren’t disclosed and dealt with in the purchase or refinance transaction. But once you own your property, it does not protect you going forward. Title insurance can only look back to the facts at the time you purchased. It does not cover future liens filed after title passes to you. It doesn’t help you in the event someone transfers your title without your permission.
So, how would you know if your property has been sold or mortgaged without your consent? Obviously, the county clerk’s office where the property is located is open to the public on any business day, and you’re always free to walk in and ask to see your records. Anyone – not just the rightful owner – can access and examine a property record. In some jurisdictions you can also search your title online. However, many clerks (such as in Nassau County, New York) keep owners’ names and mortgages off the online portal (likely due to balancing privacy issues).
But now many counties are offering free automatic email alerts, and some offer alerts by traditional mail, to help owners more quickly discover suspicious activity. This doesn’t guarantee that the owner will get their deed back, but finding out as soon as possible provides the best chance at recovering.
Who is Most Likely To Be a Target of Deed Fraud?
Senior citizens and minorities seem to be targeted more often. Homes held by an estate in the interim between the last owner’s death and the next transfer are vulnerable. And not surprisingly, properties held “free and clear” are especially attractive to scammers.
So, in practical terms, what can you do to give yourself as much protection as possible against deed fraud?
Steps to Reduce Risk of Title Fraud:
What Should You Do if You Discover Your Deed Has Been Transferred Without Your Consent – or a Fraudulent Lien Put on Your Property?
If you suspect you’ve already been defrauded, immediately report it to the District Attorney’s office in the county where the property is located, and promptly seek legal advice.
Video from the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School explaining title fraud:
Free Alerts for Property Owners
We couldn’t include all jurisdictions, but here are a few around the country that offer this service:
New York City
To check your property in all boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx) except Staten Island:
To register for fraud alerts in NYC:
If your property is located in Staten Island, check your property on the Richmond County Clerk’s website at these links:
This link asks for your name, you might have luck with this link:
This link asks for your property’s Block & Lot numbers which are found on your deed and mortgage)
To register your deed for fraud alerts in New York City in all 5 boroughs, go to:
You can search by address or by using the Block and Lot numbers for your property/
There are no fees to register or to receive a notification sent via e-mail or regular mail. However, text message rates may apply (please consult with your carrier).
What if I have a coop or a timeshare?
The system doesn’t work for individual units, only the whole building can receive these alerts.
In New York City Notification will be sent for many document types, such as:
Nassau County, NY
This FREE service provided by the Nassau County Clerk will alert you with an e-mail notification when a document is filed in the Nassau County Clerk’s office with your name on it.
Up to 10 entries of names, properties, or names attached to properties (including corporations)
Suffolk County, NY
Check your title on https://suffolkcountyny.gov/Elected-Officials/County-Clerk/Online-Records
Click here to join Homeowner’s Watchlist: https://kiosk.suffolkcountyny.gov/kioskweb/Default.aspx
Westchester County, NY
Westchester County’s link to check your title:
Free Service: Deed Fraud Guard
Nashville & Davidson County Tennessee
Davidson County Recording Alert
Real Property Alert Service
Chicago – Cook County, Illinois
Palm Beach County, Florida
Las Vegas, Nevada
Clark County Recording Notification Service
San Diego County, California
Recording Notification Service
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