How to Protect Yourself from Home Title (Deed) Theft
By Jon Aldrich
A retired couple from Long Island, New York went away on an extended vacation only to discover when they arrived back home that someone else was living in their home. No, this wasn’t some squatter taking up residence in their house because they were gone for a while, these were people that actually purchased the house on the open market because someone stole the deed to the house from the couple that returned home from the extended vacation. How the heck did this happen and what can you do to protect this from happening to you?
So, how can a thief actually steal your house? Essentially, home title or deed theft is a form of identity theft. Someone has managed to steal your identity and has taken it one step further to actually obtain the deed to your house and sell it as if they were the owner of the property. With the red-hot housing market, this has become one of the fastest growing crimes in America recently. The FBI reported that in 2017, 9,600 victims lost over $56million due to house theft. I could not locate more recent figures, but from everything I have found, those numbers are higher now. Let’s be clear though, it is still not a very common occurrence, but it does happen and is occurring more frequently and is something you should be aware of.
Getting into more detail about how this is accomplished, the signatures of actual property owners can be obtained from land records which are publicly available either online or at the county courthouse. This allows the thieves to forge signatures and impersonate the real owners as sellers of the property. Now, they can create a fraudulent deed and with the help of some co-conspirators that impersonate and forge the signatures of the true owners the bad guys can now sell or transfer a property by having the transaction documented in the land records of the county without the knowledge of the actual owners.
Title to a house is not an actual document, but it does express who the legal owner of a property is. A deed is the actual physical document that transfers title to the new owners of a property when it is sold. The deed is signed by both the seller and the party that purchased the real estate.
Those most at risk for deed theft are the elderly because they generally have the most equity in their homes and own the home outright. (If there is a mortgage on the property it is more difficult for the thieves to accomplish the theft because of the added layer of signoffs the mortgage company would require.) House thieves have also been known to obtain Home Equity Lines of Credit using this technique. And if you own a vacation home that is vacant several months throughout the year, it is also a prime target as well since the house can be unoccupied for longer periods of time and would be easier for a perpetrator to pull this off.
You may wonder why title insurance you purchased when you bought your home would not help you in cases like this and that is because title insurance only protects from things that occurred prior to the date you purchased the property but does not cover events that occur after you own the property.
Ok, what do I need to do to protect myself from someone stealing my house? First and foremost, it gets back to the precautions you should be taking to protect yourself from identity theft such as checking and freezing your credit, pay attention to missing bills, as ID thieves may change addresses that bills go to in order to hide their activities. You can also check your home information with your county deeds office to make sure everything is appropriate. There are also a number of “Title-Lock” companies out there that offer to protect title to your home, but it doesn’t really seem that this “insurance” is worth it if you follow the steps above. Many counties also have deed alerts you can sign up for free that will notify you if a document is recorded with your name match so that you are alerted if there is activity involving your deed. Here is the Winnebago County’s.
If your house is actually stolen via deed theft, you do have recourse and all you need to prove is that your deed was fraudulently transferred via forged signature and other means. Yes, it will likely entail some legal costs and stress, as you will probably need to hire an attorney to help you with a number of things, but if you can stop it before it occurs your life will be much easier. Take identity protection seriously.
It just goes to show, that we all need to be vigilant in our personal lives and those of the elderly to help protect ourselves from all the various forms of identity theft, of which house theft is a big one. It is bad enough that we have to worry about someone breaking into our house, now we have to be concerned about someone actually stealing our house.
Here are some other links if you want to dig deeper into this subject: