Home Stealing Swindles and Similar Crimes

$_72Baton Rouge   For years I’ve seen these almost handmade looking signs on street corners in our neighborhoods in various cities in the USA that say something on the order of “We Buy Old Houses, Call XYZ” or “No Matter What Condition, We Buy Houses” and so forth. In New Orleans it seemed part of the post-Katrina landscape, just like other signs that say, “I’ve Got a Backhoe, Call Me” or “House Gutting, Call Me.” Seeing those signs in other cities made me scratch my head but not hard enough to dent the brain until recently I read about several home stealing swindles preying on the elderly, uninformed, and lower income families.

The simplest swindle was a straight up proposition to buy a home with some age on it and some repairs needed and offer a hefty price, get the owner to sign over the documents based on a front end payment of a couple of thousand dollars, flip the house, and then stiff the original owner for a sucker. Invariably, the owner was desperate for money because of medical bills, payday loans, or whatever so overlooked the simple logic and fine print in order to get some real money in their hands while the swindler saw the switch as a down payment worth tens of thousands in their pockets. Worse, it’s horrifying how many get away with this swindle, much like a couple of years ago when shady mortgage brokers would dupe the elderly especially into refinancing their homes just to pocket the fees and points.

A more sophisticated swindle seems to take advantage of the modernization of county and parish property records on-line to speed transactions and increase transparency in the often burdened process of clearing titles and effecting sales at real estate closings. In some jurisdictions, virtually all of the records attending the sales are now visible online, often exposing not only a good facsimile of the owner’s signature for future criminal duplication, but also bank account numbers, social security numbers, and pretty much the whole package. Finding homes where there are absentee owners that rarely visit and inspect the property and often don’t have friends or neighbors keeping the extra eye out, allows the swindlers to come in, place the house for sale quietly, bring in a team of helpers to pretend to be the owners, and even con legitimate lawyers and title companies into handling the closing. The New York Times ran a story of an elderly woman who suddenly discovered a house she owned was sold out from under her for more than a half-million. She got lucky and the police did right, but we have to wonder how many times people get away with this kind of thing, and how many more may in the future. In red hot housing markets this may look like easy pickings.

Meanwhile, the big banks are still trying to muscle into the housing market to displace the federal lending authorities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Most of them have hardly paid off their billions in penalties and fines from their earlier crimes in crashing the housing market and now they think they should be trusted to control the whole shebang. Some reported the good news that homes that were underwater, where more was owed in mortgage than the value of the home in the market, had decreased from over 16% to only 13% and change in 2014. Some cities like Las Vegas, Chicago, and Atlanta are over 18% underwater in the market. Since 3 to 5% used to be the normal, and we are supposedly in recovery from the meltdown, it seems like we still have a long way to go with a lot of pain and suffering on the road.

Big swindles or small, no one can be too careful when there are so many vultures waiting to swindle homeowners on a regular and daily basis. Seems there’s always something.

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