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Discarded files: an ID nightmare

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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Investigators probing the affairs of Jonathan Boxman, a former title-insurance agent who was arrested in July on charges he allegedly stole money from clients during the high-flying days of the real-estate boom, might want to look behind his onetime office building in a remote section of Charleston.

That's where hundreds of Boxman's clients' files sit stuffed in open, dirty garbage bags. Several, an Advance reporter found, contain important personal information such as Social Security numbers and copies of driver's licenses.

And some could contain original deeds and mortgages that prosecutors have been trying to locate. Authorities allege Boxman never recorded some of those original documents with the county clerk -- potentially causing big problems for his former clients.

But the personal information in the discarded documents behind the empty 'Titledge Plaza' office could cause even more problems, and symbolize the dramatic rise and fall of the real-estate industry and associated industries such as title agents, who search public-property records on behalf of companies that sell title insurance. The latter assures buyers and lenders that the property is free of any liens, judgments and other possible ownership glitches.

The number of title-insurance policies fueled by home sales and mortgage refinancings boomed from 2000 to 2005, more than doubling the amount people paid in title-insurance premiums from $8 billion to $17 billion, experts have said.

But the industry was also dogged during the boom years by complaints of overcharges by unscrupulous title agents and allegations of kickbacks to corner business.

'This is a byproduct of this boom-bust thing,' Richmond County Clerk Stephen Fiala said of Boxman's discarded documents. 'What happened to all the records handled by these fly-by-night startup companies?'

It's a good question.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office investigating Boxman said he could not comment on the case but promised to make prosecutors aware of the discarded files.

John Killea, general counsel for Texas-based Stewart Title Guarantee Co., which provided policies to Boxman's companies, said Boxman's title agencies were independent businesses 'that have the responsibility to safeguard the personal non-public information of their customers, pursuant to any federal or state privacy laws.'

According to court documents, Boxman, of Freehold, N.J., controlled various companies, including Titledge Insurance Company, Titledge of New Jersey and Integrity Title Agency, all located at 654 Sharrotts Rd., in a remote industrial area surrounded by warehouses.

Boxman's attorney also did not return phone calls seeking comment about the dumped files.

While there are some minor penalties under local and federal laws for failing to properly discard personal and financial information, document dumping before shredding important information is just plain irresponsible, experts said.

It's also more likely to happen when problem-plagued companies close.

'I'm disappointed that that information wasn't well-guarded. I really am,' Rosalie Leone said upon learning her file was tossed out behind the Titledge office.

A copy of the Oakwood resident's driver's license and her Social Security number were found inside a file retrieved by the Advance.

Mrs. Leone, who said she had once before been the victim of identity theft after a burglary, could not recall the name of the title company she used when she took out a home-equity line of credit in 2003.

That's not unusual.

The Consumer Federation of America has told Congress that there is little incentive to keep the cost of title insurance down because most consumers know little about their title insurer.

That's because such insurance is not marketed directly to home buyers, but to go-between title agents, mortgage brokers or real-estate agents who can steer buyers to the big national title insurers. The bulk of the title insurance premium also goes to the title agent, the consumer advocacy group has said.

And some have complained that title insurers and agents seeking referrals for business from the real estate industry may do illegally, by offering money and then overcharging on other closing costs.

In 2006, the state Attorney General's office told the state insurance department that title-insurance agents were receiving what amounted to illegal kickbacks to generate business. New Yorkers, meanwhile, were overpaying for such insurance, with 75 percent of every dollar paid for title policies going to the agents, the office said.

Boxman was charged with bilking clients of more than $1.7 million by allegedly funneling fees and taxes designated for real-estate closings to some of his own companies and to cover past thefts. An undisclosed number of mortgages and deeds also went unrecorded due to the scheme, prosecutors alleged.

Without the original deed on the public record, a person can't sell or refinance a house and there is a risk of fraud if that house is remortgaged or resold.

The same week Boxman was arrested, Staten Island prosecutors charged a former South Beach couple of committing title-insurance fraud. Two Staten Island brothers with ties the mob were sentenced to prison in 2007 for stealing money intended for real estate closings. The two operated several title companies.

John Hall of the Stapleton firm Hall and Hall is a longtime real-estate attorney and the past chair of the New York State Bar Association's committee on title and transfer. Hall said the bar association has been pushing for licensing requirements for non-lawyer title agents and to put an end to overcharges on standard costs associated with a title search and real estate closing.

While Hall said there are some very good title agents, including non-lawyer agents, he acknowledged serious problems with the industry.

'Some underwriters will appoint anyone who can bring in business, regardless of what they know,' he said.

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