A recent rash of property fraud crimes in Beverly/Morgan Park has prompted officials to launch an investigation and issue a warning to local homeowners.
In a letter dated Oct. 20, 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea said his office, together with the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County Recorder of Deeds and the offices of the Cook County State’s Attorney and the Illinois Attorney General, is investigating a situation in which fraudsters are stealing property by filing forged deed transfer documents with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.
As many as 12 homes in the neighborhood have been affected by the fraudulent activity, O’Shea said, which could create legal and financial problems for the rightful owners.
For instance, if the owner wanted to sell, refinance or take out a second mortgage, a fraudulent deed could complicate or even derail that process. In addition, the person who filed the deed has the potential of securing a mortgage on the property and walking away with the proceeds.
In Beverly/Morgan Park, many of the homes that have been affected are vacant and/or bank-owned but now have people living in them illegally, upsetting neighbors who have reported an increase in suspicious behavior and petty crime.
“It’s a very serious problem,” O’Shea said. “These [offenders] are professionals.”
In the letter, O’Shea urged local homeowners to protect themselves by registering their property with a free property-fraud alert program offered by Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough.
Once a property is registered, the owner will receive an alert any time a document is recorded against the property.
According to O’Shea, property and recording fraud is one of the fastest-growing crimes affecting homeowners. Fraudsters typically target homes that are fully paid for—often owned by an elderly person without heirs—by filing forged ownership documents with the county recorder of deeds. Once recorded, these documents transfer ownership of the property to the fraudster.
In an article in the November issue of The Villager, officials from the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA), who are also collaborating with authorities, said the problem is difficult to address.
“The problem has occurred in part because the state of Illinois has an open filing system with regard to property recordings and, by law, county recorders here are not allowed to deny any filing submitted to them,” the article said. “A new state law may be required to allow county recorders to deny a filing.”
Cook County Deputy Recorder of Deeds John Mirkovic said Yarbrough has been proactively dealing with the problem since taking office in December 2012.
Among the measures Yarbrough has initiated, Mirkovic said, is one that increases the criminal penalty for persons knowingly filing false claims of interest or attempting to “cloud” a property title. Under the new law, a person committing such offense for the second or subsequent time or on a title that exceeds $10,000 in value is subject to class 4 felony charges.
In addition, Mirkovic said, Yarbrough also helped institute a measure that allows officials to correct a deed that has been deemed fraudulent without requiring the property owner to file actions in chancery court. Written by Yarbrough and passed through both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly, the law helps property owners remove “clouds” from their property titles with less expense and in less time than would normally occur in chancery court, Mirkovic said.
According to Mirkovic, Beverly/Morgan Park is not the only area affected by property fraud in recent years; last year, the recorder of deeds had 92 open investigations throughout Cook County.
O’Shea said he will continue to work with law enforcement and investigative agencies to bring current offenders to justice and to prevent further fraudulent activity from occurring.
To register for the Cook County Recorder of Deeds’ free property-fraud alert, visit cookrecorder.com or call (800) 728-3858.