As criminal investigation 'significantly broadens,' ideas on how to prevent deed forgery emerge

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - How do you stop criminals from stealing homes?

A year-long 41 Action News investigation uncovered a real estate fraud scheme in the Kansas City area, a crime pulled off by using forged signatures of the living and the dead.

The investigation also showed how one forged deed can cost homeowners thousands of dollars in legal fees. Without new regulations or procedures, there appears to be little to keep it from happening to you.

However, there are preventative measures other cities and states have taken to help stem the problem.

Los Angeles County, Calif., implemented one idea in 1997 as fraud investigators dealt with a rash of forged housing deeds.

Every time a deed is recorded in the county, a notification postcard is mailed to the property owner , along with a copy of the housing document. The postcard instructs recipients to check the deed for accuracy. If something is wrong, the postcard lists a number for a real estate fraud hotline.

"It's definitely been a proactive measure in the county to combat real estate fraud," Brian Stiger, Director of the Department of Consumer Affairs, told 41 Action News. "If there's an issue, call us and we'll do an investigation. If it's fraudulent, we can work to get that removed."

The program is paid for by an extra fee when someone records a document. Stiger said it has received such positive feedback, the county expanded the notification program in early December.

While the notification program doesn't necessarily stop forgeries from happening, it can help alert homeowners about a problem.

During the 41 Action News investigation, property owners often had no idea they were victims until we contacted them.

White collar crime experts say criminals make money by renting out the homes if they're vacant, selling the homes for cash to unsuspecting buyers, or by taking out a loan.

Currently, notaries are one of the only safeguards in place to help protect property owners. However, 41 Action News found a number of instances where it appeared the notary's stamp and signature had also been forged.

Employees in county recorder of deeds' offices are only instructed to look for a couple of basic requirements on housing documents before making them public record. They are not expected to check the veracity of signatures or investigate for possible forgery.

"Our responsibilities are very narrowly defined," Jackson County Recorder of Deeds Director Robert Kelly told 41 Action News in September.

Some have suggested having employees check an online database maintained by the Missouri Secretary of State to make sure the notaries are commissioned. That would have red-flagged a handful of fraudulent deeds discovered by 41 Action News.

Another idea is to require consumers to leave a thumbprint in a notary's journal instead of just a signature, which might make criminals think twice about leaving that evidence behind.

"I think it's a good idea," said Sheridan Lichte, a Missouri notary of eight years.

Lichte said obtaining a thumbprint would only take a few extra seconds during a transaction. She would also like to see more regulations of businesses that provide notary stamps. Right now, she said it is too easy for someone to order a stamp with her information.

"If it's happening at all, it's a big enough problem," Lichte said. "You know there's no way to stop this kind of stuff. But if we can get in front of it, we can slow it down."

William Anderson is the Vice President of Best Practices and Legislative Affairs for the National Notary Association.

The organization has dealt with the forgery issue for years and recommends a list of different measures , including the thumbprint requirement.

Anderson said the NNA has recently been in touch with representatives from the Missouri Secretary of State's Office.

"They seem very interested in addressing the issue," Anderson told 41 Action News.

State lawmakers are also taking notice. Rep. Mike Cierpiot, a Jackson County Republican, told 41 Action News he has been researching the topic.

When lawmakers reconvene in January, Cierpiot said he plans to speak with stakeholders to see what kind of buy-in there is for certain proposals. He will also see if certain changes would make more sense in highly-populated areas like Jackson County instead of statewide.

"This is very frustrating and expensive for homeowners," Cierpiot said. "It could be a bigger problem than we realize."

Meantime, 41 Action News continues to follow the criminal probe sparked by our year-long investigation. The original 41 Action News investigation connected more than a dozen questionable deeds to Willis L. King of Kansas City.

A spokeswoman with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office said the case is now broadening.

"Our case has now become a multijurisdictional investigation, including several federal entities and may result in a federal indictment," Sgt. Ronda Montgomery told 41 Action News.

Stay with 41 Action for any developments to the criminal investigation or

any proposed changes out of Jefferson City.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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