There is an epidemic of deed theft all over the U. S. these days.  Hardest hit cities at the moment are Brooklyn, New York’s Harlem, Detroit and Chicago but be on the lookout, this highly sophisticate, devastating epidemic is certain to hit your city or town soon, if it hasn’t already.

Deed theft, also known as “house stealing,” happens when a person or, more likely, a well organized syndicate, steals an unsuspecting home owner’s property deed, cobbles together the owner’s signature(s), address, email, phone number, etc. and then forges the paperwork required to place the property on the market.  The perpetrator(s) then files a quitclaim on the property, quickly sells it for below market value, accepts cash offers (usually from out-of-towners or foreign buyers who haven’t even seen the property) and makes big profits on the sale without the real owner realizing anything that’s happening. Oftentimes, legitimate lawyers and realtors/brokers are involved in these transactions without knowing that they’re helping criminals.

All of this is made possible by the fact that deeds, mortgages and other pertinent property documents are now stored online and available to anyone.  The increase of and unprecedented access to these online records, coupled with the rise of “regular” identity theft, only exacerbates the problem. Originally, the intent of putting these property documents and records online was meant to improve transparency in real estate transactions.  However, the unexpected outcome of this well intended transparency effort is that anyone interested in putting together deed fraud/theft scams with properties that face potential foreclosure, properties in probate due to a death, seemingly vacant properties can do it.

Homeowners must be vigilant about having original deeds to properties (your own and those in probate or trust), mortgage documents, insurance policies, anything that substantiates you as the rightful owner and/or designated trustee.  Additionally,

  1.  Do not under any circumstances relinquish your property’s deed and/or ancillary property records to anyone without first consulting an attorney, including circumstances where a person/partnership/company offers to free you from threats of foreclosure or offers you lower monthly mortgage payments in exchange for those property documents.
  2. Contact law enforcement if/when you learn about any deed fraud/theft of your property.
  3. Contact a real estate attorney to help you obtain a “quiet title” on the property.  Quiet title clears any improperly/fraudulently reported deeds.
  4. Look for your yearly tax bill.  If you don’t receive one, call and find out where it is.
  5. If buying a property, verify the ownership of the property.
  6. Buy properties using representation by a licensed real estate agent.