I have worked in the real estate industry on and off for many years, at one time I even was a partner in a real estate brokerage here in Florida. Despite my years of experience in real estate, I had never heard of ‘home title fraud’ until recently. The most shocking aspect of this crime is how easy it is to pull off and how most victims don’t find out until it is too late.
Home title fraud occurs when a property deed is altered and the owner listed is changed to the name of the criminal. In many cases, this is carried out by first stealing the identity of the victim. Once the deed has been transferred, a new mortgage can be obtained. The owner finds out months later when they receive a foreclosure notice. Title insurance will not protect you since the deed is stolen after you purchased the property. Since most counties make available online document filing, a criminal can even steal your home title right over the Internet.
Who Is At Risk?
The scam targets primarily two groups — the elderly, and vacation home owners. The elderly are frequent victims because many times they have paid off homes. Second homes or vacation homes are also targeted because they are frequently empty, allowing the scammer physical access to the property and incoming mail. In another twist, criminals will search the obituaries to prey on properties of the recently deceased. While these are the primary targets, anyone can become a victim of these new and growing crime.
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself?
Many counties now make available free fraud alerts. Simply register your e mail address to be notified in real time of any legal filings containing your name. Pictured below is a screenshot from Davidson County (Nashville, TN) of their free alert service registration page.
Experts also suggest that you purchase an identity theft plan with monitoring so you will be alerted of any financial activity on your credit file. Other clues that something may be going on include not receiving your utility bills or beginning to receive another person’s mail at your address. Any notices or bills from a new mortgage you did not apply for is the most obvious of tip-offs.