LAURELTON, N.Y. (WABC) --A woman in Laurelton, Queens says her family home has been stolen in a phony deed scam, and now all of her memories are gone.
"It's difficult to believe this is even happening. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking I've had a bad dream," she said.
But it's not a dream. Imagine learning there are strangers in your house, and most of your belongings have disappeared or been trashed. And what's worse-you have to prove you're the rightful owner.
What's most incredible is that a phony deed was recorded by The New York City finance Department, with no evidence of a legitimate sale. The question: could this happen to anyone - could your house be stolen?
"All of the furniture has been removed," Jennifer Merin said.
It's surreal for her, looking from the outside into the home in Laurelton, Queens that's been in her family since 1931.
"The house was furnished, fully furnished. My family was collectors. They loved antiques," she explained. "It's my memories. It's my family.
And she is helpless to get inside because someone else has filed a deed saying they own the property.
"It's very painful for me," Merin said. "It's unimaginable. It's beyond belief."
Merin doesn't live in the home, but visits periodically. She suspected trouble in May when there was a spike in her water bill when she hadn't been there for months.
She checked the city registry and was stunned to fine the deed registered to an ex-con named Darrell Beatty.
A photo is believed to show Beatty in Merin's backyard. The address for the supposed seller, Edith Moore, doesn't exist, and Merin doesn't know who that is.
"It's appalling, and I've discovered it is easy to do to anyone," she said.
Merin called cops after going to her home and seeing strange men coming out of her house. She started videotaping them.
The cops told Merin it's a civil matter and there's nothing they can do.
"Even though we know that they're in the wrong, we have to play the game like they have valid control of the house," Merin said.
We've learned the one is Beatty's youngest son. We spotted him coming out of the house, but he bolted past me.
The son refused to discuss his dad, who is now nowhere to be found. Merin has now been forced to hire an attorney to get her house back, but most of her belongings are gone. The rest is junked in the garage. Her car, which had been inside there, is gone too.
"These are all my things. My name is on here, archived," she said. "What I'm looking at, Sarah, is estate rape. This is estate rape. And they have raped everything about my family. My feelings, my memories. They've taken my property, destroyed a whole dynasty of memories."
If Merin hadn't noticed that water bill, it might have been too late.
We've done several investigations where schemers have targeted houses, usually with absentee owners. They then try to flip the homes for a quick sale. If you own property in New York City, we have some advice on how to protect yourself:
Make sure you record your deed and register in the free program called Notice of Recorded Document. That notifies registrants of any deeds or mortgage-related documents that are recorded against their property.
If you inherit property or obtain it through another process such as marriage, make sure you have it put in your name.