As a trial lawyer and a former real estate fraud prosecutor, I have battled con artists for over two decades and have personally witnessed the answer to “can someone steal your home title?” question many times.
The short answer is: Yes…and No. By committing deed fraud, criminals can make it appear that you sold or gave away your home or lost it to foreclosure. By doing this, they take away your ability to control what happens to your home. Once they have control of your title, they can take out a mortgage against it or even sell it to unsuspecting buyers, and in this way, it certainly feels like they stole your home title. Legally, you cannot lose your home title without your consent or without a court order. But…once crooks have “stolen” your title, you can’t get it back without a lawsuit.
How Can Someone Steal Your Home Title?
When you sign a deed or other important document like a power of attorney or a healthcare directive, you need to get your signature notarized to prevent identity theft. What this means is that the government requires you to prove your identity to a notary, who is a commissioned officer of the state. Then, either the notary must actually witness you signing the document, or you must acknowledge to the notary that the signature on the document is in fact yours. Finally, the notary uses their stamp to place their official seal on the document.
The reason for this process is to ensure that unauthorized people (i.e., imposters, con artists, and fraudsters) cannot make important decisions about you as a person or about your real estate and finances. Notaries exist to protect YOU. When a lender or home buyer sees the notary’s seal on the deed, or when a bank sees the seal on a power of attorney, or when a doctor sees the seal on a healthcare directive, they are supposed to be able to assume that the document is authentic and that you knowingly and intentionally signed the document. Unfortunately, 21st Century technology has made such an assumption no longer possible.
There are four common ways in which someone can steal your personal information and take ownership of your property.
They impersonate you and sign a deed as you in order to steal your home title
Even though the states and the federal government regularly add new security features to ID cards, fake IDs are readily available to criminals. The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) regularly seizes fake identification documents that arrive en masse from overseas. In 2020, CBP in Cincinnati seized 14,504 fraudulent identification documents that included fake drivers licenses, fake passports and fake social security cards, and CBP in Chicago seized 19,888 fake drivers licenses that arrived from China, Hong Kong, Great Britain and South Korea.
The quality of fake IDs ranges from obviously-fake to undetectable-to-the-naked-eye.
With a fake ID, a fraudster can appear as you in front of a notary. The notary will look at the ID and look at the fraudster, and – unless the notary is using some kind of technology like the Veri-Lock™ app – they will probably not notice a problem. The notary will apply their stamp to the document, making it official, and unwittingly giving the con artist a powerful tool (i.e., a forged deed or a fake power of attorney), with which they can steal a lot of money from the bank in your name.
They create a believable forged deed in your name
Many fraudsters will simply skip the notary altogether. With modern home printers and computers, literally anybody can create a believable forged deed that includes forged signatures and a forged notary stamp, such as happened in this news report out of Kansas City:
You can find a cache of similar news videos from across the country here.
Some con artists may even go to the trouble of stealing a notary’s stamp or purchasing a fake one online, but most will simply use image editing software on their computer.
Once the fake deed is filed with the county recorder, then it can be used to obtain a loan or even to sell the property to unsuspecting buyers. Usually, the con artist will sell the property at a discount so that the buyer thinks they are getting a great deal and might overlook some red flags about the property title.
They trick you into signing a deed to steal your home title
The most important skill of a con artist is their ability to convince people to trust them, and some of them prey on people who are in financial trouble. Often these people have defaulted on their home loan, the foreclosure process has begun, and they simply don’t know how they will get out of the financial hole they are in. They are desperate and primed to believed anybody who says they can help.
In this situation, the fraudster might tell them that the first thing they have to do is transfer their home title into the name of a company that is controlled by the fraudster. The criminal will make any promise necessary to persuade the homeowner and might even put them on the phone with someone who claims to be a lawyer and who explains that the process is legal and effective. Of course, the so-called lawyer is simply an accomplice in this criminal conspiracy.
Once the homeowner signs that deed, they completely lose control of the property, and they become mere tenants to the fraudster, who may eventually evict them.
You may be asking why the fraudster would do this because the bank will foreclose anyway? We’ll reserve the answer to that question for another blog but suffice it to say that criminals have fraudulent methods to delay foreclosures indefinitely.
They force you to sign a deed
Con artists often prey on older homeowners, who can no longer manage their affairs very well. These fraudsters are typically “insiders” such as caregivers or even family members. While the majority of caregivers are empathetic and compassionate, some of them have no qualms with taking advantage of the people in their care.
They may threaten violence, or they may threaten to withhold food or other pleasures such as television, or they might threaten to keep the elder from seeing their family and friends. Each of these threats can be used to assert “undue influence” against an older homeowner and force them to sign away the ownership of their home.
Yes, It’s Easy for Someone to Steal Your Home Title?
Sadly, it is easy for someone to commit the crime of home title fraud or house stealing. While title might still be yours from a legal perspective, without incurring a lot of legal fees, it will appear to the world that your home no longer belongs to you.
There are ways to protect yourself. A handful of counties around the country have created a notification system, and if you sign up, you will have some title theft protection. Since 99.9% of counties do not have such a service, most homeowners should sign up with a private title monitoring service such as TitleShield™ or Home Title Lock, which will notify you if title fraud occurs. Lastly, if you have an aging family member, keep a close eye on them and on their caregivers. Don’t ever let a con artist think nobody is paying attention.
– David Fleck, CEO