Without data, thieves can simply steal your home

Philadelphia's city government is realizing the drawbacks of not properly documenting and verifying property deed transfers: house theft.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Now here's a great example of an area of local government that could really use some technology: property deed management.

A Philadelphia Daily News report this morning explains how thieves are preying on residents in the city's toughest, poorest neighborhoods by forging their names on property deed transferrals and getting their houses legally transferred out of the original owner's hands -- without them knowing about it.

That's a crime story. What makes it a data story is the fact that Philadelphia's Department of Records can't determine if the signatures on paperwork are fraudulent. It can't track people who forge signatures. And under state law, it can't reject those that it suspects are fraudulent -- even if they've been sued on those grounds many times before.

A system with neither check nor balance. Fun!

Jan Ransom reports:

At issue is a 1997 Commonwealth Court ruling that the Records Department had to comply with state law by recording documents immediately. The ruling followed a complaint filed by the Pennsylvania Land Title Association, which claimed the city had a backlog of tens of thousands of unrecorded documents.

"They've interpreted it as you have to take everything," Greenlee said.

To address deed theft, the Records Department in 2005 began photographing anyone who walks in to record a deed and notifying property owners by mail when transfers occur. Critics argue this does nothing to stop a fraudulent deed from being recorded.

"Once you accept [the deed], it puts the victim in a defensive position," Greenlee said. "They do some things after the fact, but it can take a year to two years to get resolved. A lot of times it can't be resolved."

If there's one thing we've learned about implementing IT systems in city government, it's that it's best used to ferret out patterns that humans are either unable to see or unable to monitor in a timely manner. In this example in Philadelphia, we can see the latter: every manual step of the above process is enormously taxing on an under-resourced department, putting it -- and by extension city residents -- on the defensive.

A no-tech process, as well as laws that support it, that opens up a fairly large opportunity for scammers to game the system. Ouch.

Photo: P.W. Baker/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards