Know the Signs. Prevent Identity Fraud.
The title to your home is a precious document. It proves that you own your home and that you may borrow money against your home equity. Can internet hackers take it from you?
Cybercriminals are highly sophisticated. In 2020, they were able to hack into top cybersecurity firms that do business with the U.S. government. Three years earlier, hackers got into a credit reporting company’s database. The Equifax breach exposed personal details of about 143 million people.
Assume that your social security number, birth date and other key identification numbers may have been exposed at some time. And if you’ve had the deed to your home recorded, your signature is in a database, too. But while we all could be vulnerable, knowledge is power. Here’s what to know about how title snatchers work, and how to safeguard your identity and your homeownership.
How Title Theft Works
If everyone has some form of online profile, everyone is at some risk of their personal data falling into the wrong hands, leading to identity theft and fraud. There are also the “phishing” text and email messages that target people individually, looking for Social Security numbers, passwords, and account numbers.
Once they have signatures and IDs, swindlers can replicate them and file fraudulent paperwork with the register of deeds, to transfer titles over to themselves or another person. In most places, by law, anybody can walk into the office of the county recorder with a completed and notarized deed, and the office must record the instrument without questioning the legitimacy of the filer or the signature. And once title fraud is discovered, the rightful homeowners bear the burden to prove, for example, that a notary’s signature on a quitclaim deed is a forgery.
A common move by a house title thief is to take out a home equity line of credit on the home. The criminal will do whatever it takes to extract money from the home before the crime is discovered.
The innocent homeowner might have no idea anything happened until a surprise letter from a lender demands a payoff and threatens potential foreclosure. Or perhaps a title company will discover the issue because someone is attempting to sell the house.
Many of the targets are older people. Seniors tend to have the most home equity, and some have not developed the habit of visiting the credit bureaus’ websites to check their credit profiles. People who do not live in their homes, or who own multiple properties, are also more easily defrauded, because they miss significant notices.
Restoring a homeowner’s title by way of a quiet title action can take months of legal work and cost tens of thousands of dollars. So, what’s the best way to protect your home title from fraud? Nothing substitutes for mindfulness: reviewing your credit report at least annually, regularly checking your bills, staying off public wi-fi, including hotel internet connections. You could get an identity and home title “lock” service, but be aware that identity theft services usually notify you after the hack has happened.
Yet you can take steps to protect yourself.
Prevent Identity Fraud and Guard Your Home Title
It’s a good practice to look in on your title now and then through the local register of deeds’ website. Red flags include unfamiliar deeds, loans, or court actions. The faster you respond to stop the damage if an actual issue has occurred, the better.
What should your response be, though, and to whom? Inform the register of deeds and your township police. Request a certified copy of whatever document was wrongly recorded, and bring it to an attorney who deals with criminal cases.
Being vigilant about your identity is important for a host of reasons beyond title fraud, of course. This checklist of best practices can keep your identifying information — and possibly your home equity — out of digital criminals’ hands:
- Get in the habit of checking your credit profile. It’s simpler than ever to do, and it’s free.
- Even if you pay your credit card balances automatically, check your card accounts each month. A late bill can be fraud-related — the sign of a scam in which someone has changed the address on an account. Call the credit card company on its security phone number if something looks off.
- Look through your bank statements, whether paper or online, for unexpected charges, collection notices, or withdrawals. Set up automatic “high withdrawal” alerts on your accounts so know when money comes out.
- Seniors who are not living at home should have their mail forwarded or picked up regularly. Be sure there’s a method in place to check on elders’ accounts when they can’t.
- Shred papers containing personal data before disposing of them.
- When buying a home, ask the title company about an extended owner’s title insurance policy — one that includes protection against title fraud.
This might go without saying, but mindful emailing habits have never been more important. Sending a reply to a message? Check to be sure all the letters in the recipient’s email address are correct. Remember not to open or forward suspicious messages or attachments, even to unsubscribe. Don’t give account details to anyone on unsolicited phone calls. Be on your guard when you receive a call, text, voice mail or email asking for personal information.
Pro tip: Many counties now offer free text or email alerts if someone records anything on a county property. Check the website of your county recorder of deeds.
A Spike in Identity Theft Cases
Cases of identity theft, according to PNC Bank, have shot up since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Often, shady information requests appear in texts, from someone who appears to be an employee of a financial institution. The bank has reminded its customers that banks do not ask for people’s personal details through text messages.
☛ See more from Deeds.com about the rise in real estate fraud associated with the pandemic crisis.
Even before the advent of Covid-19, title fraud was a growing problem. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, criminals have created shell corporations to hold titles stolen from unknowing and deceased owners, so they could sell the homes and collect mortgage payments from the buyers. After months of legal work to void the fraudulent deeds in these cases, the owners face lasting problems getting title insurance for the affected homes.
Law enforcement is working to keep up with the cybercrime surge in many parts of the country, working through several agencies.
- Responding to the meshing of traditional fraud and digital crimes, the U.S. Secret Service in 2020 blended its response capabilities with its new Cyber Fraud Task Forces.
- The FBI runs an Internet Crime Complaint Center, specifically for accepting reports of hacking and online crimes.
- The Federal Trade Commission offers a roadmap at Identitytheft.gov to guide victims of identity theft through the process of restoring a good credit profile.
Hacking and digital crimes are an inevitable reality in the digital era. In some cases, they involve the loss of a home — which is not only a valuable asset; it’s also shelter. Know the signs. Be on guard to help yourself, and those you care about, protect what matters most.
Jeff Lazerson, How Equifax Hackers Could Steal Your Home, Orange County Register (Sep. 21, 2017).
Matt Tatham, Experian: What Is Home Title Fraud? (Feb. 21, 2019).
Better Business Bureau Scam Alert: Home Title Fraud (Jul. 16, 2020).
Patricia Mertz Esswein, How to Protect Your Home From Deed Theft, Kiplinger (Jun. 27, 2019).
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, American Military University: Property Title Theft: Rare but Rising during COVID-19 (Nov. 4, 2020).
PNC Bank: The Startling Rise of Fraud and Identity Theft During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Sep. 17 2020).