PENN HILLS, Pa. — Allegheny County officials are pledging to improve security with its real estate website after a Penn Hills family said a man sharing the same name was able to change the owner's address.
Real estate records show Sylvester Ward bought his house on Vantine Street in 2008.
Another man, also named Sylvester Ward, in North Carolina was able to change the owner's address on the property through the county's real estate office.
That change allowed the house to be listed for sale on Zillow and other real estate websites, even though the Ward family wasn't interested in selling.
"Everything you have to go through to actually buy your house, I never thought it would be that easy for someone to just change my name," the owner said.
"There's more security sometimes on your Facebook or email account. But they just send stuff in and they get it changed," added Maresa Ward, his wife.
Department of Real Estate manager Brian Brodeur confirmed changing a homeowner's address can be done through email and is only verified through a phone call and a check of the name.
“It could be changed rather quickly, probably I would say within 10 minutes,” Brodeur said. “I think it was an attempt to be as customer-friendly as we possibly could.”
Brodeur admits they never considered someone sharing the same name would try to fraudulently claim they own a house.
After learning what 11 Investigates uncovered, the county will now implement stronger security by getting more details from homeowners and sending a letter to the address to confirm the owner's identity before making any changes.
They've also locked the Ward family's real estate information into the system so it can't be changed without legal action.
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“We apologize for all of the inconveniences. We are taking serious looks at this and we are trying to make this better," Brodeur said.
11 Investigates was able to speak with the Sylvester Ward in North Carolina, who still claims he owns the house on Vandine Street, despite the Allegheny County Real Estate Office and Penn Hills police saying otherwise.
He said he plans on coming to Pittsburgh to resolve the issue in the coming weeks.
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