Heirs, Protect the Seniors in Your Life From Deed Theft

A 91-year-old Floridian recently sent a payment to his insurer. Then the agent called to say the company wouldn’t be able to renew the homeowner’s policy. The deed had been transferred. The home was now legally owned by another person.

Some days later, from his bedroom, this shocked and disoriented senior heard three people come into the home. It seems the perpetrator was trying to sell the house. Fort Lauderdale police are investigating.

The swindled senior paid off the mortgage 15 years ago. Maybe that’s part of the issue. If there were a mortgage lien on the home, the mortgage company would have been alerted to the transfer. Plenty of elders live in homes with paid-off mortgages in Florida, and plenty of fraudulent schemes are targeting their increasingly valuable homes.

How Can Deed Theft Happen?

Deed theft can happen when someone with ill intent downloads a quitclaim deed form. The fraudster writes their name into the form as grantee (recipient) of the property, and forges the rightful owner’s signature.

A notary public might be complicit. For example, an involved notary could unlawfully witness the deed transfer in the absence of the grantor (rightful homeowner). Next, the deed gets recorded in the county. That’s a simple step, as the deed recorder’s job is simply to record the deed. As long as the document appears to adhere to the proper procedural requirements, it will go into the records.

Quitclaims tend to be the deeds of choice in fraudulent real estate transactions. Frequent victims are seniors, renters who pay owners who took the property by forgery, and unsuspecting buyers involved in transactions with fraudsters.

Leaving the real homeowner in the dark, a fraudster can take loans out against the home, or sell or rent it out. In some cases, these homes wind up in foreclosure over the debts the fraudsters rack up. The rightful owners know nothing until one day a sale notice appears on the front door.

With no mortgage company as a lienholder to be notified, the entire scheme can happen under the radar. Later in this article, we’ll discuss how the owner can get notification before their property values are plundered.  

Could Your Inheritance Be at Risk?

When seniors lose their homes, generations are affected. The property appraiser for Broward County, Florida calls deed theft a huge issue that’s “a very big priority for our office.” Several recent cases illustrate why:

  • Investigative work by the county sheriff and the appraiser’s office led to convictions of people who scoured the local death notices to target heirs’ homes. The swindlers transferred the deeds out from under 67 Florida families.
  • Another recent scheme involved a fictional person, fraudulently presented as the executor of a million-dollar Florida home.
  • Still another case involved impersonation in a $516,000 mortgage application in Broward County. The trick came to light when the owners got mail addressed to them and an unfamiliar business name. In the county records was a deed transfer to the fake company.

Because home sales can take weeks to be updated in the county assessor’s online records, a personal representative might have no idea that some shady scheme has targeted an estate. In Palm Beach County, the Clerk of Courts has seen numerous probate cases of heirs belatedly learning that their inherited real estate has been exploited.

Can Heirs Get on Automatic Deed Alert Lists?

Counties and cities across the nation have set up electronic “owner alerts” that notify homeowners by email, immediately, whenever deeds are recorded on their homes. Younger relatives and friends can talk with elder homeowners and help them sign onto these automated alert services, if needed.

But not all seniors are comfortable using the internet. Some counties have a workaround for this. Heirs, or others designated by elder homeowners, may be able to sign up and help these seniors.

In Florida, Broward County asks homeowners who sign up for the alerts to supply the home’s property identification number, and a form of personal identification. People the homeowner designates can sign up by identifying themselves, and stating who they are to the owner.

Palm Beach County’s system does not ask for proof of ownership or proof of a relationship. It merely asks for the home’s address, parcel number, and legal description. Its service sends alerts for mortgages and any other liens, as well as contractors’ notices.

Counties that don’t have these services might still have notification procedures. For example, some counties send letters to property owners upon the recording of a quitclaim, given how easy quitclaims can be put to questionable uses. Homeowners and their designees are also wise to look up their properties in the public record each month, and to opt into the major credit bureaus’ alert systems.

Important note: Some businesses target homeowners with notification services for deed fraud. They ask for money to do the very same thing that a homeowner can do at no cost. Counties that set up email alerts do not charge people for these services.

Signing up with your county? Keeping up with emails is important. If someone can alert law enforcement to suspicious activity before a criminal rents, sells, or financially exploits the property, the homeowner stands a stronger chance of saving the home!

If Suspicious Activity Comes to Light, What Should the Homeowner Do?

Every hour matters once a fraudulent deed filing comes to light. People who are alerted should immediately call the police and the county to report the suspicious activity.

The 91-year-old Floridian called the authorities promptly. His niece also happens to have a friend who’s the former owner of a title company. The family told the retired title expert about the situation. The title expert, in turn, tracked down the title company that was working on the impending sale of the stolen home. She told the company about the surprise quitclaim. The company suspended the sale. Meanwhile, the retired title expert is helping the family put evidence together for law enforcement agents.

Their example is a good one. Swindled homeowners and their heirs should tap any resources they have.

Buying a home? Protect your title, and your heirs, by choosing to buy an owner’s title policy. An extended title policy guards against identity theft and forgery.

When they take their cases to law enforcement, owners will need to swear that they are rightful owners and the deed has been wrongly conveyed. They will need to promptly record a notice of fraudulent transfer with the county. And they should be willing to go into a courtroom to untangle the improper deed transfer(s).

The courts have a range of remedies for real estate fraud. A criminal court can void an improper deed transfer. In a civil court, quiet title action might be an option. Unfortunately, without an extended insurance policy, the victim is normally stuck dealing with the legal costs. 

The Takeaway

Deed fraud is not slowing down. Heirs can help senior relatives to avoid major losses. They might just be saving their inheritances, too.

Supporting References

Ron Hurtibise for the South Florida Sun Sentinel (via Yahoo.com): Heirs Can Help Elders Protect Themselves Against Becoming Victims of Growing Property Fraud Trend (Dec. 27, 2022).

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Photo credits: Andrea Piacquadio and Mike Jones, via Pexels.