State AG Indicts Long Island Conman for Deed Theft

Joseph Makhani and New York Attorney General Letitia James with the two Harlem properties (Google Maps, Getty, Facebook via Maple Street Community Garden)

Twenty bucks for two brownstones — those are the deals that tipped off the state to a near-decade-long deed theft scheme by a Long Island conman with prior convictions.

New York Attorney General Letitia James indicted Long Island’s Joseph Makhani last week for the theft of two Harlem brownstones, one of which Makhani stole from an elderly woman with mobility issues.

Makhani obtained the properties — 107 West 118th Street and 135 West 131st Street — in 2012 by forging deeds and falsifying documents, the state alleges.

He conned the 107 West 118th Street owner by using forged documents to seize control of the home now worth $2.3 million. Makhani presented a falsified title to take out a $1.2 million mortgage on the property and claimed he paid $975,000 for the brownstone to receive a $650,000 construction line of credit. Makhani later claimed in a tax filing to have paid just $10 for the property.

The property’s former owner came home one day to find the doors of the building bolted shut, the New York Post reported.

In 2016, he renovated the apartments from single-room occupancies to full apartments and rented each unit for upwards of $3,000, pulling in over $12,000 in monthly rental income.

At 135 West 131st Street, Makhani capitalized on a property owner’s death to take possession of the building. The property’s initial owner had passed in the 70s, after which a beneficiary took over management. When that caretaker passed away in 2010, Makhani pounced.

He targeted one of the building’s tenants, telling the renter that he’d purchased the building and requested the tenant’s signature under the guise of offering employment. Makhani then recreated the signature on a fraudulent deed to transfer the property to one of his companies — One 35 West Corp.

Makhani filed another deed to show the initial owner of the property had transferred the building to him and concocted a fake social security number whose true owner was born in 1902 to back up the lie.

Makhani failed to keep up with repairs and maintenance and abandoned the property in 2015 after being fined $1 million by the city.

All told, Makhani was charged with seven counts, including criminal possession of stolen property and residential mortgage fraud.

Makhani has a rap sheet full of real estate crimes dating back to the 1990s. He spent two years in prison after pleading guilty in 1998 to bid-rigging foreclosed properties in Queens and submitting a false tax return. And in 2008, three companies allegedly owned by Makhani pled guilty to forging signatures on deeds filed through the city’s Department of Finance.

He is also embroiled in at least three civil proceedings with homeowners he targeted after learning they were vulnerable to tax liens, according to the New York Post.

The city council introduced legislation last year that would increase reporting of deed fraud and encourage the state to boost protections for homeowners. More than 3,000 deed theft complaints were filed with the city’s Department of Finance between 2014 and 2020.

One bill would require the sheriff to report details of complaints and investigations associated with recorded document fraud. The other would give property owners a better sense of fraud being conducted by notifying owners when deeds, mortgages and ownership documents for their properties have been recorded with the department of finance.

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