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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A gang whose members included a self-proclaimed bishop was charged on Wednesday with stealing unoccupied houses by faking ownership documents and selling them to unsuspecting buyers.
A Philadelphia grand jury charged 15 people after District Attorney Lynne Abraham said 82 properties had been "sold" since 2004 without the knowledge of the rightful owners.
The suspects include a church minister who sometimes presented himself as a bishop to win the confidence of buyers, Abraham said. They targeted immigrants and non-English speakers unfamiliar with real-estate laws.
The accused allegedly forged documents that appeared to give buyers the right to enter properties while they waited for deeds that never came.
The scheme was discovered in September 2004 when a homeowner contacted the District Attorney's office to report the fraudulent sale of a house that he and his wife had owned since 1989 but had left vacant.
"Both sides of these cases have suffered immeasurably, the families who paid cash for 'buying' what they never owned and spending more money for rehabilitation of the properties, and the rightful home owners who had to hire attorneys to get their rightful property returned to them," the district attorney said in announcing the results of the grand jury probe.
Philadelphia is vulnerable to such schemes because it has many empty houses as a result of a declining population.
The suspects face charges including conspiracy, theft, forgery, perjury, burglary, and tampering with public records.
Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Alan Elsner