As they grow older or lose a spouse, their homes can accumulate liens stemming from unpaid property taxes or water and sewage charges, making them vulnerable to fraudsters who often search public records to identify homeowners under financial stress.
“Deed theft has become a common tool of career criminals and unscrupulous real estate developers to illegally obtain real estate, most often with the goal of selling it at a huge profit in high-demand housing markets,” Letitia James, the state attorney general, said in an email.
Dairus Griffiths, 65, has been mired in a five-year legal battle to recoup his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant after he was ensnared in a scheme and ended up giving up the house, which was worth $1.3 million, for $630,000.
Mr. Griffiths was facing foreclosure after a tenant stopped paying rent, causing him to fall behind on his mortgage payments.
Not long after foreclosure proceedings began, a man named Eli Mashieh approached Mr. Griffiths claiming to run August West Development, a real estate firm in Queens, according to Theresa Trzaskoma, Mr. Griffiths’s lawyer.
He told Mr. Griffiths that he was going to lose his house and offered him a cash advance, Ms. Trzaskoma said. Feeling pressured and fearful that he would soon be evicted, Mr. Griffiths signed a document selling his home for $630,000, believing it was a preliminary sales agreement that he would have the chance to reconsider.
After talking to his daughter, Mr. Griffiths did try to cancel the sale, but when he called Mr. Mashieh he refused, saying it was a done deal. Mr. Mashieh obtained a default judgment and the sale eventually went through.