Three people have been convicted and six others are facing felony charges after prosecutors say they took part in elaborate schemes to pose as the owners of vacant properties and sell them to buyers who were none the wiser. The Department of Finance said earlier this year regarding deed fraud that people don't "realize how big this story is." In a statement today, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said the practice has grown larger than ever.

"This type of criminal conduct—which defrauds not only legitimate property owners, but unsuspecting buyers as well—is reaching unprecedented levels in New York and across the country," he said.

Six of those charged with some combination of fraud, forgery, grand larceny, and identity theft, were tied to the theft of a brownstone on West 118th Street in Harlem. The three-and-a-half-story building has belonged to a now-retired nurse named Sybil Patrick since 1989, and has long sat vacant while Patrick has pondered what to do with it.The Wall Street Journal reported that, over the course of months, Patrick noticed the locks changed and items moved in the house, but didn't realize it had been sold until the super of a neighboring building asked her about why she had decided to let go of the property.

Three people, Christopher Cable, 39, Carrie Stevens, 61, and Kajetan Belza, 38, have since pleaded guilty to taking part in an elaborate ruse where Stevens posed as Patrick using a forged driver's license in Patrick's name. Over three months in the spring of 2014, with suspect Kanwarjeet Malik allegedly posing as a broker, and three additional accused participants taking part, prosecutors say the group sold the decrepit brownstone for $525,000. The amount was delivered in a check payable to the actual owner, and Stevens admitted accepting it. According to the DA's Office's appraisal, the property is worth more than $1 million.

District attorneys say the fraud operation targeted vacant properties with absentee owners, and followed a similar blueprint each time, with the team forging a driver's license in the name of the actual owner (and in one case, a passport too), retaining an attorney, and selling. They'd split up the money between newly opened business bank accounts, or somehow run it through check-cashing businesses. The legitimate owners would be none the wiser until they, like Patrick, returned to find the locks changed or construction work underway.

Prosecutors say the schemers also hit another brownstone in Harlem, a long-vacant Williamsburg lot owned by a Midtown-dwelling investor, a condemned building in Jamaica, Queens, and a vacant lot in Astoria.

Belza pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, admitting involvement with four of the five thefts, and was sentenced yesterday to 4-12 years in prison. Cable pleaded guilty to eight counts and was sentenced in September to 3-9 years. Stevens pleaded guilty to grand larceny, identity theft, and forgery, and was sentenced in July to 1-3 years.

The trio was indicted in September 2014, a year before cops caught up to Malik, who prosecutors claim went by several aliases and was responsible for hiring attorneys and impersonators, and scheduling closings. Malik has pleaded not guilty. Five others are facing similar charges in connection with the Jamaica, West 130th Street in Harlem, and Astoria ripoffs.

New York's overheated real estate market and the migration of public property records online have accelerated the pace of such fraud, according to prosecutors.

"This crime has always happened, but it’s been made much more prolific" thanks to the Internet, Manhattan's Executive Assistant District Attorney David Szuchman told the Journal.

The Department of Finance is currently investigating about 120 possible deed fraud cases, according to the paper.