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Bipartisan effort fights against real estate deed fraud

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(The Center Square) – Two bills looking to fight against deed fraud have passed the Michigan House with bipartisan support.

If successful in a Senate vote, HB 5598 and 5599 would enforce a new 10-year felony for anyone who tries to falsify information on a property deed, such as ownership or a forged signature. The bills would also allow registrar employees to submit fraudulent documents to a county prosecutor for analysis.

“Criminals continue to find new and innovative ways to defraud our communities,” said Rep. Ken Borton, R-Gaylord, who voted for both bills. “Instead of applying skills and talents toward real jobs, people are now falsifying deeds in desperate attempts to steal property. Oftentimes, these cases wind up costing true property owners thousands in court fees as they have to prove they really do own the home they worked so hard for.”

The legislation was introduced after numerous falsified documents were discovered by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. In many instances, criminals will forge a signature, transferring the property title to themselves. A mortgage lender, either unaware or complicit, will then help to borrow against the property. The rightful owner is often elderly or recently died, completely unaware of what has happened.

“Whether someone is making up a title or moving into a family’s house when they’re on vacation, we need to give homeowners more tools and protections to ensure desperate criminals cannot claim someone else’s property as their own,” Borton said. “I’m proud to support this bipartisan effort to criminalize deed fraud.”

One of the most recent examples happened in March, when Detroit resident Zina Thomas allegedly stole more than 30 homes through forged quitclaim deeds. The falsified documents would transfer ownership to fictitious entities, often through her nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition, and sell them to third parties.

“This scheme targeted some of our most financially vulnerable citizens and was perpetrated by an individual whose job it was to help those very people avoid losing their homes to foreclosure,” said Dawn Ison, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

While quitclaim deeds are usually used to transfer property ownership between family members, they can be easily abused by those looking to defraud the elderly or deceased.

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