What should dirt lawyers do about the Equifax data breach?

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Protect yourself! Advise your clients!

Everyone should have heard about the Equifax data breach at this point, but have you taken any action to protect yourselves and your clients in the face of it?

Equifax has created a website that allows individuals to determine whether their information has been compromised and allows them to sign up for a free year of credit monitoring. Originally, the fine print on this site indicated taking advantage of the free-year credit monitoring service would result in a waiver of legal rights against the company, but I understand the company folded under extreme pressure and removed this language. In any event, please read the fine print since it is apparently changing as this story unfolds.

This website indicated my information had been stolen as well as my husband’s and several colleagues at work. I recommend that you check here to find out whether you need to take further action.

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What action should you take?  I am already a member of a credit monitoring service, so I did not sign up for the free year with Equifax. Regardless, I prefer to keep my legal rights intact. I may need those rights! You may decide to take advantage of the service. You may decide to bite the bullet and sign up for an independent credit monitoring service, and you may decide to remain with that service for more than a year.

What else can be done? I have read many news articles and opinion pieces on this matter and decided to have my credit reports frozen with TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.  You may want to take that action, too, so I have linked those websites for you.

Consider this. If your name, address and social security numbers were compromised, this information is not going to change and the potential financial devastation is not going to resolve itself in the span of one year. Everyone who was compromised will need to be vigilant about checking and credit card accounts indefinitely.

As a real estate lawyer, you may want to advise your clients, as a service to them, about this conundrum and the actions they may be able to take to protect themselves. You may also want to reach out to your real estate agents and lender contacts to ask them to spread the word. Assuming a leadership role in this situation will serve those who rely on you well and will set you apart as a professional who works diligently to protect those who need protection.

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Dear History, please stop repeating yourself!

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Hurricane Irma is the third disaster in two years for South Carolina

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Hurricane Irma is the third disaster to pummel our beloved state since this blog was launched in 2014. After the 1,000 year flood in October of 2015, Hurricane Matthew struck in October of 2016. Rebuilding is not complete from either catastrophe.

On my way to work this morning, I passed the remains of several businesses that were destroyed when Gills Creek flooded in 2015. Thankfully, I heard recently that Richland County is about to purchase those properties to turn them into green spaces. Other areas in and around Columbia are still in the rebuilding process or have been completely abandoned. Many homeowners have made their homes bigger, stronger and certainly taller. Others have given up and moved away.

Enter Irma. A friend joked on Facebook that we’re lucky here in South Carolina Irma passed us by. You would never know it passed us by from the many feet of water we’re seeing in pictures of Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head, Georgetown, Garden City and surrounding areas. And the pictures and video coming from Florida and the Caribbean, not to mention the pictures and video coming from the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Texas and Louisiana, all show unspeakable damage.

Our company’s home office is located in Jacksonville where surrounding streets are under water. Employees with power are trying to work remotely. Others are out of commission.

A wise man in our building here in Columbia said to me this morning that these disasters bring out the best and the worst in folks. There are looters, but there are many more heroes who have rescued their neighbors in boats. There are neighborhoods without power who are gathering in their streets for impromptu block parties. Chainsaws are chopping downed trees. Supplies and helping hands are being donated. Celebrities and charities are raising millions. I’d like to believe that we’re seeing much more good than bad in people.

Our hearts are breaking for those who have lost so much. Rebuilding will take time, resources and patience. Many have lost everything and are without insurance coverage. Millions are without power and water. Many are in shock.

Dirt lawyers are in an exceptional position to support clients who may not be familiar with the assistance available to them. We have all learned a lot in the last few years. I challenge each of us to continue to educate ourselves and to be available to offer the valuable advice our neighbors and others will need in the days ahead. Local, state and federal governments seem better prepared this time around and seem to be working better to coordinate efforts. Here is a link to the South Carolina Bar’s Key Assistance Numbers. South Carolinians are strong and resilient, and we are stronger and more resilient now than we were for the last disaster.

Let’s once again rise to the occasion, real estate lawyers, and provide the best advice available for our clients and friends who will need it as they sort out, clean up and rebuild.

Mortgages without appraisals?

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Fannie and Freddie are relaxing their rules!

Government-chartered entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are relaxing their decades-old appraisal rules to allow some refinances and, more significantly, some sales to close without new appraisals. Both entities indicate they will only permit loans to close without appraisals in situations where they have substantial data on the properties in question as well as the local real estate markets.

How will the new plans work? Lenders will submit loan files to either Fannie or Freddie for underwriter analysis. The entities’ proprietary systems (automated valuation models) will be employed to determine whether sufficient valuation data is available to support the requested loan amounts.  These systems are said to be depositories of millions of prior appraisal reports and “proprietary analytics” that allow for computer-driven valuations of properties. If the system determines that no appraisal is required, the borrower will be given the choice of proceeding without an appraisal or coming out of pocket for an appraisal.

Should local residential contracts be tweaked? Should lawyers advise their purchaser clients to obtain appraisals?  We will have to cross those particular bridges.

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This seems reminiscent of the situation in the early 1990s where title insurance companies limited their requirements for current surveys. Residential lenders were given the survey coverage they required without the cost of updated surveys. Lawyers were left holding the bag, so to speak, to advise their purchaser clients of the benefits of surveys and to encourage them to incur the cost despite the fact that there was suddenly no lender or title company requirement.

Lawyers are not typically involved in residential transactions prior to loan approval, however, so it is entirely possible they will not be involved with the question of whether to obtain appraisals unless astute and cautious buyers specifically seek advice up front.

Fannie and Freddie have been quietly phasing in this new process for months and indicate appraisals will continue to be required for most loans. Fannie estimated that only ten percent of loans were eligible to close without appraisals at the inception of its program for refinances. That percentage is likely to be smaller for sales.

Both entities require at least twenty percent equity to qualify. Fannie’s program includes single-family homes, second homes and condominiums.  Freddie’s program is limited to single-family, single-unit primary residences. Homes in disaster areas, manufactured homes, and homes valued at more than $1 million will not qualify. The borrower’s credit scores and credit worthiness will also be considered.

Real estate agents are likely to love this new technology-based innovation. It will save money as well as time. Appraisers (like surveyors in the 1990s) will not be happy as this program is phased in.

What do you think? Are appraisals a good thing?  Will foregoing appraisals be akin to the “no doc” and “low doc” mortgages that helped lead us to the financial crisis of 2008? Are actual inspections by trained human beings of the interiors of residences necessary to establish value? Let’s see how this plays out!

Feds extend footprint of shell game again

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

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Secretly purchasing expensive real estate continues to be a popular method for criminals to launder dirty money. Setting up shell entities allows these criminals to hide their identities. When the real estate is later sold, the money has been miraculously cleaned.

In early 2016, The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasurer issued an order that required the four largest title insurance companies to identify the natural persons or “beneficial owners” behind the legal entities that purchase some expensive residential properties.

At that time, the reach of the project extended to the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and Dade County, Florida, where Miami is located. In those two locations, the designated title insurance companies were required to disclose to the government the names of buyers who paid cash for properties over $1 million in Miami and over $3 million in Manhattan. The natural persons behind the legal entities had to be reported for any ownership of at least 25 percent in an affected property.

By order effective August 28, 2016, all title insurance underwriters, in addition to their affiliates and agents, were required to be involved in the reporting process, and the footprint of the project was extended.

The targeted areas and their price thresholds as of August 28, 2016 were:

  • Borough of Manhattan, New York; $3 million;
  • Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Borough of Staten Island, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, Florida; $1 million;
  • Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Diego Counties, California; $2 million; and
  • Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas; $500,000.

By order effective September 22, 2017, wire transfers were included, and the footprint of the project will include transactions over $3 million in the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Although the initial project was termed temporary and exploratory, FinCEN has indicated that the project is helping law enforcement identify possible illicit activity and is also informing future regulatory approaches. The current order extends through March 20, 2018.

We have no way of knowing whether or when this program may be expanded to South Carolina, but it is entirely likely that expensive properties along our coast are being used in money laundering schemes. We will keep a close watch on this program for possible expansion

Total eclipse of the heart….I mean sun

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What an experience! Millions were expected to descend upon beautiful and “famously hot” Columbia, S.C. for the total eclipse on Monday. Hundreds of events were planned to welcome the natives as well as the visitors. I thought it was an overly-hyped occasion, but I was mistaken. The eerie darkness descending on the otherwise bright day, the sounds of evening crickets; the brightening of streetlights in mid-afternoon; it was all surreal. And watching the main event was no less than dreamlike. No horror movie ever depicted an eclipse more vividly. A few clouds passed into our vision like inky smoke as we watched the moon chase and completely capture the sun. And two minutes later, the process reversed itself. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

A few people who had to miss the eclipse were described in an August 14 HousingWire story by Ben Lane entitled “Ringleader of elaborate mortgage fraud scheme gets 10 years in prison.” Mr. Lane described the complex New Jersey mortgage fraud scheme that involved fake everything, sellers, businesses, lawyers, title agents and notaries. The co-conspirators pled guilty to money laundering in a scheme that involved using stolen identities to pilfer more than $930,000 from lenders in at least eight fraudulent loan transitions.

The criminals created all the aspects of legitimate closings by using stolen and fictitious identities to fill all the required roles. The homes were real, but the homeowners were totally unaware. Virtual offices and businesses were created by setting up dozens of phone numbers, email addresses, fax numbers, websites and mail drop addresses. Several lenders were deceived by the elaborate scheme. Once the loans were disbursed to the accounts of fictitious law firms and title agents, the criminals withdrew loan proceeds by visiting ATMS and bank branches for several months until the entire amounts were withdrawn.

The HousingWire story accurately states that mortgage fraud is an expensive drain on the lending agency which ultimately raises the cost of borrowing for consumers. The astute New Jersey and federal investigators who successfully apprehended these criminals benefited us all.

As the criminals report to jail, we will return to our normal lives but will remain in awe of the powerful occurrence we witnessed yesterday.

History repeats itself

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Fraudulent mortgage satisfaction schemes are back

We have heard recently that a group is engaging in a scheme to fraudulent satisfy mortgages (or deeds of trust) in California and Florida. We all know that trends in California and Florida eventually make it to South Carolina, so I wanted to make sure South Carolina dirt lawyers are aware of this scheme. This is not a new scheme, but we thought it had died down until we got this news last month.

Here are some good rules of thumb to assist you in avoiding losses and protect clients in this area:

  • Have your title examiners provide you with copies of mortgage satisfactions and releases. Two sets of eyes reviewing the documents should help with spotting issues.
  • Pay particular attention to satisfactions and releases within a year of your closings. The normal schemes involve satisfying mortgages in order to collect funds at subsequent closings.
  • Pay particular attention to satisfactions and releases that are not connected with a sale or refinance. Contact the lender for confirmation that the loan has been paid in full.
  • Don’t accept a satisfaction or release directly from a seller, buyer or third party without contacting the lender for confirmation that the loan has been paid in full.
  • Many of the fraudulent documents are being executed by an unauthorized party on behalf of MERS. Compare MERS satisfactions with others you have seen in connection with your closings.
  • Check spellings and compare signatures against those of genuine instruments.
  • Be wary of hand-written documents, unorthodox documents, cross-outs, insertions and multiple fonts.

The perpetrators of this fraud are sophisticated and will change aspects of the scheme as needed, so remain vigilant and discuss any suspected fraudulent documents with your title insurance underwriter.

The Episcopal Church case is out; It will take more than faith to deed, mortgage and insure church properties

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Today, I am thankful to be a real estate lawyer. As I attempt to decipher the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 77-page opinion involving the Episcopal Church published on August 2,* my mission is limited to the real estate issues.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains, but I am attempting here to boil those issues down to a manageable few words for all of us.

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St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Episcopal Churches, Downtown Charleston, SC 

 

News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant.  I assume a petition for rehearing will ensue as well as an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began five years ago when 39 local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

Wednesday’s ruling upholds the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. It also orders the breakaway group to return 29 properties to the national church. Seven parishes may maintain their independence.

The position of the properties turns on whether the local parishes agreed to be bound by the “Dennis Canon” which was enacted in 1979 and provided, in effect, that real property of a parish is held in trust for the national church and the local Diocese, subject to the power of the local parish over the property, so long as the parish remains a part of the national church and Diocese. No evidence was found in the records of the seven parishes that those parishes ever agreed to be bound by the Dennis Canon. The other 29 properties were the subject of documentation to the effect that the local churches intended to hold the property in trust for the denomination. The opinion did not uphold the Dennis Canon in and of itself. Explicit recognition of the Canon was required.

That, in short, is the impact of the 77-page opinion on real estate lawyers. We will need to watch for a possible rehearing, appeal periods and a potential settlement. In the meantime, we will sit tight and not involve ourselves in sales and mortgages of these properties.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I am always thankful to be a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.