Baltimore property market resets, using manual workaround to avoid hacked computer networks

Baltimore’s property market sputtered back to life Monday as officials launched a manual system for processing sales, asking sellers to swear they’ll pay any outstanding bills discovered when the city’s ransomware-stricken computer networks come back online.

But progress was slow at an office in the Abel Wolman Municipal Building, where a niche group of real estate companies bring deeds to be processed and prepared for recording at the courthouse.

A supervisor in the office said her clerks usually process a deed in about 30 minutes. But without computers, the job was expected to take three times as long. And in the days since the system went down, a huge backlog of deeds has mounted.

Michael Shaw, who works for Record Courier Recording Service, sipped coffee as he tried to figure out the workaround system.

“We’ve been collecting deeds up for two weeks now,” Shaw said. “It’s just stacking up and stacking up.”

Employees of the specialized deed recording firms began arriving at 8 a.m. Monday at the city office, toting dozens of files that have gone unprocessed since the ransomware hit May 7. Wads of paperwork, each one representing a property to be sold and topped by the city’s all-important blue lien certificates, grew in stacks on the counter of the waiting area.

Since the computer problems began, city clerks have been unable to access a database of bills to generate new blue certificates or verify that debts tied to the properties were cleared. That led title insurance companies to prohibit their agents from issuing policies in the city because they couldn’t be sure all outstanding liens against a property had been resolved.

The halting of property sales has been the highest-profile effect of the ransomware attack and city officials moved quickly last week to come up with a way to get the market moving again. The mayor’s office announced Friday that a workaround plan had been finalized and extended office hours approved, steps it said would “jump start” sales.

But most of the files the recording company employees hauled in Monday were not for deals blocked after May 7, but for sales settled before the system went down. And in the property transfer office, it wasn’t clear which of those would be accepted.

“There’s a lot of hearsay,” said Brandon Eastwood, who works for Record Time Recording Services, his father’s company. Eastwood had 50 or so deeds in black folders with him that he hoped to get processed.

Even on a normal day, the job involves a lot of waiting around. That gives the workers, who are employed by competing firms who work for title companies, time to sit and chat. Several described the crew of regulars as like a family.

But on Monday, there was more waiting than usual. People sat looking at their phones, drinking coffee and trading intelligence they had gleaned about how the new system worked, until their names were called from a sign-up sheet.

Getting their names on the sign-up sheet entitled them to have three deeds taken for processing by city clerks in an office sectioned off with a glass partition and net curtains.

To get more turns on the sheet, Jackie Lewis, who works for Recordings R Us, brought two relatives.

Even that strategy yielded limited results. By 11 a.m., just 33 deeds had been taken back to be processed.

And Pam Beam, Lewis’ aunt, said she had two of her first three files rejected as unsuitable for the city’s workaround. So, as the morning wore on, Lewis and Beam tried to triage stacks of files — they had a backlog of about 200 — figuring out which ones were most likely to pass muster.

Behind the curtains, nine clerks overseen by supervisor Claire Uroza checked final bills by hand and consulted state records on their phones to double-check the sellers of properties were, in fact, their owners.

“Our mission today and this week and until this is resolved is to do everything we can to help them,” Uroza said.

Uroza has worked for the city since 1997, when the job of processing deeds was done by hand. But for many of her staff, she said the workaround is an unfamiliar process. Uroza’s been holding 6 a.m. training sessions to get everyone up to speed.

The finalized papers were being dropped into a pair of boxes. The job of processing payments and entering records into an electronic system will be done later.

Shaw, who had brought 32 deeds into the office and had another 40 in his car, said he blamed the city for not taking steps to strengthen its computer defenses after a ransomware attack hit the 911 system last year.

“Now, they’re dealing with this mess,” he said.

Key to the city’s workaround is a two-page affidavit that a seller must sign, saying they’ll pay any outstanding bills discovered once the electronic billing database comes online. Initially, the finance department assumed a seller would have to come in person and sign the paper in front of an employee. But, asked by a reporter about the process, they decided they would post an affidavit online and accept notarized copies.

Some deeds were being accepted Monday without the affidavit, but it wasn’t always clear which ones qualified.

As Lewis and Beam stood sorting their stacks of records on the counter, they debated what documentation they needed for water bills to get by without the extra paperwork.

“You talk to Person A you get this story, you talk to Person B you get this story,” Beam said.

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