Renaldo Robichaw was a frequent flyer to the deed room at City Hall.
Early last year, he showed up three times and calmly submitted to its security check each time — voluntarily turning over his driver’s license to be photocopied. Then, prosecutors say, he proceeded to file fraudulent deeds to steal six properties.
Clearly, the city’s property thieves aren’t deterred by the city’s locks and bars.
Amid a previous furor over house theft about 15 years ago, the city imposed some reforms. The deed room started making copies of buyers’ IDs and taking their photographs. It also began notifying property owners by mail when a sales deed for their properties had been filed.
Such a notification alerted one of Robichaw’s victims, who in turn reported to prosecutors that the house of his late aunt and uncle had been stolen with a bogus deed. Authorities charged Robichaw, 46, late last month with that theft and five others, saying he routinely forged the names of the dead to deeds.
Still, it’s all not enough. Complaints of deed fraud in Philadelphia shot up 75 percent last year and there are no signs the problem is abating. As The Inquirer has reported in recent stories, the competition to acquire houses of the dead has gotten so charged that people have staged rival attempts to take the same house.
Here are seven ways the city can crack down on property theft:
To steal a property, fraudsters typically follow a couple of paths. The most common route is to file faked documents with the deed room. This includes counterfeit deeds with forged signatures of dead or absent owners. The other ploy is to pose as an heir to the city Register of Wills’ office and take the property as an inheritance.
At City Hall, deed-room clerks simply approve and record deeds provided they meet a list of 16 requirements, many clerical in nature. Critics say the review must get tougher.
Mark Goodheart, a lawyer who has fought property thieves in civil cases, said that he respected the deed-room staff there but that its emphasis was staying ahead of the paper flow.
“They just record what is put before them,” Goodheart said. “I talked to the guys there — they said, ‘We get it, but our statute and our marching orders are that we record. We do not check for validity.'"
This may reflect an embarrassing moment in the Records Department’s past. In 1997, the agency was sued by the Pennsylvania Land Title Association because documents were sitting around for months. In all, 30,000 deeds and other records were stashed in 100 boxes waiting to be filed.
Performance improved after a Common Pleas Court judge ordered it to catch up and to “take all action necessary to avoid the creation of any new backlog.”
Still, there are simple ways that city clerks can spot suspicious paperwork without forensically reviewing all 48,000 deeds that the city processes yearly. There are markers for fraud: decades-long gaps between a deed’s supposed signing and its recording date; a series of transfers of a property after years of inactivity; the repeated surfacing of certain questionable buyers and notaries; deeds filed by hand, rather than electronically.
Jeff Carpenter, whose Kensington nonprofit recently spent $101,000 in legal fees to save park space from a forgery attempt, said the city had responded to the past criticism about its handling of deeds with an attitude of “move 'em through faster, whatever it takes.” He said it was past time for it to hire enough staff to both handle deeds efficiently and to block fraud.
To find target properties, thieves walk the streets to pick up the stories behind seemingly abandoned buildings. They also pore over lists of coming sheriff sales of properties with tax debts and unpaid mortgages.
Their hope is to find places of dead or long-absent owners, guaranteeing a lack of protest when names are forged on deeds. In the recent case brought against Robichaw, prosecutors say he forged the names of five dead people in stealing the six properties.
But the city Records Department, which staffs the deed room on the bottom floor of City Hall, could routinely check sellers against a database of the dead.
Such a database is available. The city commissioners, who oversee Philadelphia elections, regularly tap into one maintained by the state Department of Health to strike the dead from election rolls. It removed 8,655 deceased voters last year, according to Tim Dowling, a chief deputy in that office.
By vouching for the signature of buyers and sellers, notaries are the main bulwark against fraud. For that reason, thieves often forge their names and stamps as well as those of the “sellers.”
Carpenter, president of the Arcadia Commons nonprofit, urges the city to check deeds by routinely calling notaries to verify their oversight of sales. All this would require, he pointed out, was the creation of a reliable list of contact numbers or emails for notaries.
Along with increased training for deed-room staff, city Records Commissioner James Leonard is moving to keep a digital record of notaries. according to lawyers working with the city to combat the fraud problem. Leonard could not be reached for comment.
State legislators from Philadelphia have introduced bills to mandate thumbprints, but the legislation has never made it out of committee.
In California, the only state to require this, the requirement has made a big impact, according to the National Notary Association. Since 1996, notaries have had to keep thumbprints in their business journal. If a deal proves to be false, the record provides investigators with an immediate guide to suspects.
“If you talk to any prosecutor, when it comes to mortgage fraud, or deed fraud or property crime, they will tell you a journal thumbprint is a critical piece of evidence,” said Phillip Browne, a spokesperson for the California-based organization.
“We believe it an essential part of notarization. It provides the best evidence of what occurred and who was involved in the transaction.”
Philadelphia Police Sgt. Jerry Rocks, who leads the small band of detectives who investigate real estate crimes for the District Attorney’s Office, noted that deeds require little information from buyers. Thieves, he said, often merely list the property they are buying as their address and a corporate name as their identity.
Requiring the true names and addresses of sellers, he said, would do a lot to help investigators unravel frauds.
Recently, District Attorney Larry Krasner doubled the number of prosecutors assigned to house theft — to two.
Previously, Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack was the only prosecutor tackling these cases, along with identity theft, guardianship abuse, and other economic crimes. While Esack in just the last four months has brought four complex cases against five alleged thieves who collectively took 40 properties, the problem clearly requires more resources.
While regulators, judges, and prosecutors all play roles in stemming deed fraud, they don’t necessarily share information. There should be a formal way of doing that.
The state Secretary of State’s Office, which regulates notaries, has brought civil complaints against a handful of notaries who have approved signatures of dead people. Common Pleas Court judges have ruled deed forgeries in a few civil cases. Yet prosecutors say they learn of these cases only on a hit-and-miss basic.