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Jill Porter: One small step to stop city house thefts

ALL YOU NEED is a pen and some chutzpah, and you can steal someone's house. Because the safeguards are few and the consequences rare.

ALL YOU NEED is a pen and some chutzpah, and you can steal someone's house.

Because the safeguards are few and the consequences rare.

Which is why City Councilman William Greenlee got agitated last week when city officials objected to his efforts to institute a simple reform.

A bill proposed by Greenlee would require that the Department of Records verify, before filing a new deed, that the name of the property owner is the same as on the old deed.

Greenlee found it unthinkable that such an obvious check, which is done in other counties, isn't done in Philadelphia.

And he was visibly irked when Department of Records Commissioner Joan Decker and the city Law Department warned that the safeguard conflicted with state law - and would slow down the process.

"It's hard for me to tell the public that somebody can sell the property and there's no check to make sure they're really the owner of the property," Greenlee said to Decker at last week's hearings on the bill.

"The basic premise that I could come in and sell Councilman Goode's property is ludicrous," he said of Wilson Goode, sitting next to him at the table.

Greenlee said that the bill complements state law, which doesn't prohibit cross-checking.

Despite Decker's objections, the bill, which includes other safeguards, was unanimously voted out of Greenlee's committee and will be voted on by Council tomorrow.

The legislation is hardly a panacea, as Greenlee acknowledged.

The primary problem - that property owners' signatures are forged - would be better addressed by a proposed statewide crackdown on notaries who authorize fake signatures.

But it's about time that legislators focus on a crime that one witness called a "national epidemic."

Although official records show about 110 cases reported in Philadelphia last year, the true number is unknown and undoubtedly larger. Sometimes it can be years before a property owner discovers that his house has been stolen.

And the process to get your house back can be arduous, despite a special court instituted to handle the problem.

"These are complex matters," Common Pleas President Judge Darnell Jones, who created the new court, testified last week.

The scam was exposed in a series of articles I wrote in 2000 with my colleague Bob Warner. Thieves target deteriorated properties whose owners are often old, ill and poor, who may be in a nursing home or with family. Some have died.

The scammers enlist a crooked notary and forge the property owner's name on a new deed, usually posing as a relative of the owner to avoid paying the city's real-estate-transfer tax.

A computer cross-check would certainly prevent some of these phony transactions.

Charles Faust, for instance, who went on trial yesterday for alleged house theft, identified himself on the fake deeds as the "son" who inherited homes - from various mothers of different races.

(Faust, by the way, is one of the few alleged thieves to be prosecuted. Limited resources prevent the D.A. from investigating individual cases.)

But Decker has always maintained that the Records Department is not an investigating agency, and is mandated by the state to file all documents that meet specified technical criteria.

Decker has installed some reforms in recent years - a camera to photograph everyone who files a document, and written notice to property owners when a document related to the property is filed.

But more far-reaching changes are needed to document a deed's authenticity, a process that Decker insists is beyond her department's mandate and capability.

Her rigidness bodes ill for the effort to spare property owners the anguish and frustration of losing their properties.

And her concern for the speed of the process found little sympathy among Council members at the hearing.

"If it takes longer to process the deed, then so be it," said Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller.

"It takes so long to undo." *

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