‘Theft of someone’s spirit’: Rep. Cleaver warns against falling prey to deed fraud in KC

Tammy Ljungblad/tljungblad@kcstar.com

Fraudsters are stealing homes from their owners under a type of scheme occurring in Kansas City – and across the country – that’s prompting Rep. Emanuel Cleaver to warn residents.

Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat and former mayor, is also developing potential federal legislation to address the rash of home stealing in a practice called “deed fraud.”

Under the scheme, thieves forge someone’s signature on a property deed or convince them to unknowingly sign deed paperwork, take it to the county recorders’ office and, as long as all the paperwork is filled out correctly, steal someone’s house right out from under them.

Cleaver said he was aware of at least 26 cases in the Kansas City area. The figure couldn’t immediately be independently verified, but the Kansas City Police Department acknowledged an increasing number of cases in recent years.

Cleaver said he has met with the FBI, the Federal Housing Authority and local police and prosecutors in an effort to come up with a federal solution in the absence of action by the state legislature.

“The theft of somebody’s home is a theft of someone’s spirit,” Cleaver said. “You’re talking about something that breaks a person down. They’re doing everything right, they follow the laws, they keep their nose clean. And they bought a home, something that they intend to pass on to the next generation, to wake up one morning and it’s gone.”

Deed fraud has been a problem in Kansas City for several years. Past efforts to address the issue in the state legislature have floundered. In 2017, The Star reported on the case of Debra Maxwell, a nurse who discovered someone had seized ownership of her home.

“It’s a lot of frustration, to have something you’ve worked hard for, that you’ve taken care of, snatched from you,” she said at the time.

Kansas City police Sgt. Sebastian Hanriot said authorities have noticed an upswing in cases from Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd. to Bannister Road and Troost Avenue to the Blue Ridge Cutoff — large swaths of eastern Kansas City.

“We are well aware of the situation and working diligently with the Jackson County Investigation Bureau to address those issues,” Hanriot said in an email. “In the recent years, we have seen an uptick of forged deeds causing great financial duress for homeowners in the area.”

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office and Jackson County Recorder’s Office did not respond to a request for comment about deed fraud.

Hanriot said a case against Kansas City resident Miles W. Thomas prompted Cleaver to act. Miles, 50, is charged with felony forgery, with Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker alleging Miles in October 2021 used a fraudulent deed.

But Cleaver said he was moved to act after reading a recent report in The New York Times on deed fraud. An in-depth story by the newspaper in July detailed allegations that one man in New York had built a real estate empire by swindling away homeowners out of their properties.

Cleaver is now looking at drafting legislation to introduce in Congress, but hasn’t settled on a specific proposal yet.

“I’m not sure there’s anybody to blame,” Cleaver said. “It’s been done this way, probably since we had the first courthouse built in New England.”

He said one approach might be to require photo identification on all transactions regarding homes that are financed through the Federal Housing Authority or Government Sponsored Enterprise.

That would not catch all the instances of deed fraud, Cleaver said, but it might make the process more secure.

Deed fraud is not just a problem in Jackson County. Thefts have taken place across the country, from Los Angeles to Miami. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office said in August that there had been 65 reports of deed fraud throughout the state since January 2021.

Cities like New York and Philadelphia have set up programs where residents can receive notifications any time the city receives a document with their name on it. St. Louis County in April encouraged residents to sign up for an alert program.

In Jackson County, residents are being instructed to check their property records to look for any signature forgeries, property transfers, loans and changes to the document that look suspicious. The office also said people should be on alert if they stop receiving property tax bills.

In the meantime, Cleaver’s warning people to check their property records to ensure their houses haven’t been stolen.

“Everybody ought to check and make sure they’re on solid ground in terms of their own property,” Cleaver said.