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Baltimore Introduces “Manual Workaround” For Homebuying During Ransomware Attacks

After ransomware attacks hit Baltimore City’s computer servers, the city’s lien system became inaccessible and kept prospective homebuyers from closing on properties. This week, the city introduced a “manual workaround” for homebuyers in limbo that involves paper and sworn affidavits.

The lien system records any outstanding debts a property may have. In order for a sale to be recorded by the city, a homebuyer needs to present a lien certificate that details any debt.

Though the system’s mainframe remains inaccessible, Baltimore will accept requests for lien certificates in person at the Abel Wolman Municipal Building.

In order to get that certificate, property sellers must sign an affidavit affirming their obligation to pay any outstanding charges that would normally appear on it within ten days after receiving an invoice from the city.

The city will issue lien certificates that show zero debts owed and refer to the affidavit, removing any responsibility for settling the debts from the new property owner. 

A statement from the mayor’s office said the city processed 42 applications on Monday.

“In order to for a sale to be recorded by the city, they need a lien certificate,” said Dan Hunter, a realtor who works in Baltimore and Baltimore County. “Basically, you don't want to inherit a property with unpaid property taxes and a water bill.”

Many of the unsettled liens in question are likely to be small water bills that have accumulated since the ransomware attacks froze online payments.

The possibility of paying two-weeks-worth of water bills likely won’t prevent any sellers from signing an affidavit that allows them to sell possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property, Hunter said.

Thanks to the manual workaround, one of his clients who was stuck in limbo will be able to close on a house this morning, Hunter said.

The affidavits are “giving the city the peace of mind to record” the deeds, said Michelle Cole, who owns Cole Title & Escrow, a title company.

“The title insurance underwriters dictate what we can do and what we can't do,” said Cole, who has been in the industry for more than 25 years.

The main problem the city had to overcome was finding a way to record deeds that satisfied these underwriters, she said.

In addition to having most water billing data, the city also has tax sale data. As lien certificate applications are submitted, city workers are checking each property for any outstanding payments -- so not every piece of data needed for a normal lien certificate is missing.

For the most part, Cole said, it only took a little longer than normal for city workers to pull the tax sale information.

In the meantime, the mayor’s administration is continuing to assess the cyber attack’s effects on other city services.

“As part of our containment strategy, we deployed enhanced monitoring tools throughout our network to gain additional visibility,” Mayor Young said in a statement last Friday. “As you can image, with approximately 7,000 users, this takes time.”

Young said he is unable to able to provide with an exact timeline on when all city systems will be restored.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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