Significant concern is rapidly growing in the United States regarding the never ending schemes that compromise our personal identity.  As such, we have been repeatedly warned about our credit being jeopardized, our income tax refund being stolen, our social security checks being taken right out of our mail box, and our confidential data sold on the dark web whenever there is a break-in at a major retailer.  For the most part, the more we hear these warnings, the more vulnerable, exposed, and defenseless we feel.

But instead of diminishing, the challenges keep growing as fraudsters continue to develop new and innovative methods for stealing our identity. 

One of the newest scams to be added to the list is called “Deed Theft.”  Frank Lovece writes in a 2017 issue of Habitat’s Legal/Financial section that, “Deed theft is the new identity theft.” He makes this statement because of the pervasiveness of the crime and the far reaching, but often hidden, impact it can have.  

At this point, you are probably asking, “What is deed theft?” 

This type of fraud is less well known than its “identity theft” cousin.  Deed fraud is defined as a situation that involves the transfer of a property deed by someone who does not have the legal right to do so. This is accomplished by creating a new, fraudulent deed transferring the ownership of the property to a different, illegitimate, owner.

Knowing what deed theft is, the next question that you might consider should be, “How could someone even gain access to the deed to my house?”     

There are several opportunities for a perpetrator to steal the deed to a home.

One common situation occurs when a home owner dies. This is because there may be a lag in time during which the inherited property is transferred from the deceased family member to the heir. To become the legal homeowner in this circumstance, the heirs must probate the family member’s will, or administer the estate if there is no will. Until the title of the property is actually transferred to the intended new owner, the property is vulnerable to deed theft. Probate cannot be overlooked as a key step in securing ownership rights.

While taking advantage of a death in the family where property is involved is one way to steal a house, there are other ways that deed theft can occur.

For example, in many states property records are now available on line. These documents, which are posted by the local recorder of deeds, are easily accessible by the public during an Internet search. Data that can be downloaded includes signatures of the homeowners and other critical details. A fraudster can print the documents and, using the legitimate signature of the legitimate owners, easily complete new documents transferring the title to an illegal party. Official property title transfer forms can be purchased at an office supply or stationary store by the scammer and then filed with the proper authorities. The actual owner will not even be immediately aware of the theft of the house. 

So a fraudster can get enough information and personal data to assume the identity of the owner and then, backed up by other forged documents he has created, and forging the signature as well, can file the new deed.

An alternative scam involves a fraudster finding a buyer who is willing to purchase a house based only on photos and then selling the victim’s house through the transfer of a false deed. The real owners never even know their house has been sold and the new owners have no idea that the person showing them the photos did not really hold the true title to the home.

The concept of stealing a house by deed theft is gaining in popularity with fraudsters who are always on the lookout for new opportunities.

Fraudsters, or con men, are successful in part because they often take the path of least resistance.   Staking out vacant/empty homes or vacation homes that are not in use regularly, or just watching for a title transfer due to a death, all make the house stealing process much simpler to accomplish.

What can you do to protect the title to your home?

The most important thing to do with deed theft, as with the more well-known concept of identity theft, is to be alert and aware. Periodically check all the documents you have and review any online records. The more you pay attention, the less likely it is for you to be fooled. 

Contact Dr. Kim Miller at kim.miller@sobelcollc.com for information on removing your personal information from the internet to avoid deed theft.