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Keisha Okafor
Keisha Okafor

Beware of Deed Theft — Especially if Your Black Neighborhood Is Gentrifying

It’s as bad as it sounds. Fraudsters might steal the roof from over your head, often under the guise of ‘financial assistance.’ Here’s how to protect your home.

When Delois Blakely, Ed.D., got the opportunity to buy a Harlem multifamily residence in 1982, she jumped at the chance.

Dr. Blakely — whose full name with honorifics is Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely — is a social justice activist and former Catholic nun.

Back then, she saw the property as a perfect way to help fulfil her mission: She could use the building for community work and as a safe space to help battered women and kids in need. The home, which contains both residential and commercial space, would also be a comfortable place to raise her disabled daughter.

Over the years, the property served its purpose. Dr. Blakely became such a fixture in the community that she was proclaimed the Community Mayor of Harlem.

Recently, the couple could only stand by and watch as authorities threw their possessions in the trash and changed the locks to their home. ‘My stuff is gone, all my documents, all the important things, my furniture, everything is gone,’ Salvanita said, according to Brooklyn real estate website Brownstoner.

Despite her legacy, Dr. Blakely now finds herself, at age 81, fighting to save the very Harlem location she and her daughter have called home for four decades. 

“One day a sheriff knocked on my door and told me I was being evicted for not paying the mortgage,” Dr. Blakely says. “I said: ‘Evicted for what? I don’t even have a mortgage.’ ”

It turned out that the property was, in fact, mortgaged — under dubious circumstances and with a home loan that a judge has said involved elements of fraud. The legal battle over the property is ongoing, with Dr. Blakely and her daughter still occupying the premises.

A Nationwide Rise in Deed Theft


Dr. Blakely claims she’s a victim of deed theft, a form of mortgage fraud that is sweeping the country, especially in rapidly gentrifying parts of America.

Deed theft is called various names: deed fraud, home title fraud, title theft and more. No matter what it’s called, it really boils down to plain old house stealing based on the illegal transfer and recording of someone’s real estate title without the rightful owner’s knowledge or consent.

In Dr. Blakely’s case, she says someone wrongfully took out a $650,000 loan on her home without her permission and without the approval of a co-op board as required. The loan carried a 15 percent interest rate and was due in full in just 12 months. When the borrower defaulted, that led the sheriff to Dr. Blakely’s doorstep.

Unfortunately, Dr. Blakely is far from alone.

Deed theft has become particularly prevalent in Black and brown communities nationwide, says Dr. Blakely’s representative, Mac McAfee.

Everything you’ve heard of, from redlining to slavery, pales in comparison to what they’re doing now with deed theft. They’re often targeting people facing financial troubles or elderly homeowners who have built up a lot of equity in their homes.
Mac McAfee

“There’s an unquantifiable, terrible cost to the community,” McAfee says, adding that deed theft is causing not only the loss of homes, and the equity along with it, but also spurring higher rates of homelessness in underserved areas.

Indeed, in places like Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia and beyond, more media reports are emerging of this phenomenon, as are cases of authorities pursuing perpetrators of deed theft.

In the Houston area, for example, officials prosecuted and convicted two men in separate, high-profile cases: A 54-year man was sentenced to 40 years in prison for selling property he didn’t own to unsuspecting buyers, according to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. Then another man — a repeat offender — was slapped with a 10-year sentence for a real estate scam that preyed upon older adults. Both sentencings occurred in 2022.

“Everything you’ve heard of, from redlining to slavery, pales in comparison to what they’re doing now with deed theft,” McAfee adds. “They’re often targeting people facing financial troubles or elderly homeowners who have built up a lot of equity in their homes.”

For Salvanita and Moses Foster, Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, residents who just lost their home of 20 years to alleged deed theft, the results are heartbreaking. Recently, the couple could only stand by and watch as authorities threw their possessions in the trash and changed the locks to their home. “My stuff is gone, all my documents, all the important things, my furniture, everything is gone,” Salvanita said, according to Brooklyn real estate website Brownstoner.

Deed theft has become particularly prevalent in Black and brown communities nationwide, says Dr. Blakely’s representative, Mac McAfee.

Deed theft has gotten so bad that in November 2022, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General put out an OIG Fraud Bulletin warning consumers about the issue.

How Deed Theft Happens and What to Do


Deed theft occurs in various ways.

Sometimes perpetrators illegally take over — and get cash and loans for — properties that are vacant homes and, in some cases, places where someone has just died.

In other instances, deed theft occurs when a fraudster illegally rents out a property that they don’t own. Tenants are duped into paying rent or thinking that they are living under a rent-to-own lease. But the scam artist is really just collecting money, all while the unsuspecting victim has no idea about the con.

Another type of deed theft happens when a person at risk of foreclosure is tricked into signing over their property as part of a foreclosure rescue scam.

In December 2022, a federal jury in Cincinnati convicted two men of running a massive, years-long foreclosure rescue scheme that defrauded at least 780 homeowners nationwide. The victims were all financially distressed people who were behind on their mortgages and wanted to save their homes. They were lured by promises that the two men would negotiate with their mortgage lenders. But that never happened.

As with identity theft, deed theft is sometimes perpetrated by relatives, caregivers or someone you know. However, deed theft can also involve people you don’t know. Scam artists often use an affinity factor — say, they may be the same race as their victims — and they leverage that extra trust factor to get people to sign paperwork supposedly designed to offer economic relief but which really includes documents signing over the deed to a home. By the time a victim realizes what’s occurred, the fraudster has usually changed their number or can’t be located.

While the versions of scams vary, there are some steps you can take to help thwart these crimes. Here’s how to reduce your risk of deed theft and mortgage fraud.

  • Buy title insurance When you have a mortgage on a house, your lender requires you to have title insurance. But that insurance protects them and is good until the loan is paid off. You should also have a separate title insurance policy, an owner’s policy, that covers you in the event of fraud.
  • Keep tabs on tax records The tax appraiser’s office maintains a city or town’s list of all local properties, including the owners of each property. Check your appraisal district records online at least once a year to make sure any property you own is still listed in your name.
  • Get your property tax bills Receiving regular tax bills is another way to help ensure that you are not a target of someone perpetrating deed theft. If you don’t get an annual tax bill, that’s a red flag and an indication that something could be amiss.
  • Seek help from reputable sources Should you fall behind on a mortgage, don’t rely on someone just because they claim to be from your community. Get free or low-cost advice from a HUD-certified housing counselor. HUD also offers 24/7, free foreclosure-prevention help at 888-995-4673.

If you are impacted by deed theft, notify the authorities as soon as possible.

You can report the fraud to the HUD’s OIG Hotline at 800-347-3735, contact the Federal Trade Commission online or via phone (877-382-4357), file a complaint online or over the telephone (855-411-2372) with the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, and notify your state or county district attorney’s office as well. Many local DAs have an economic crimes unit and can assist you in trying to recover your property — and potentially pursue the offenders too.

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