By Angel Adegbesan
Randaull Cobb was in financial trouble trying to keep up with payments for his home when he was approached by solicitors who said they would help him, while also improving his house at the same time.
He was made to believe he was signing documents that would provide some type of financial assistance to keep up with the bills, but it turned out, he was signing away the deed to his home. Cobb lost the deed to his Brooklyn home in 2013.
“I was looking to get help to save my property and the fraudsters came to my place harassing me to sell my place,” said Cobb, a tax preparer. “After I told them I didn’t want to sell, they claimed to want to help me. I, then, signed a consent form to help with modification and all of a sudden, I’m being told that my home has been sold.”
Cobb is an example of a victim of deed fraud. Deed fraud involves tricking or forcing a homeowner into signing forms that transfer ownership of a property. Scammers seek out financially vulnerable homeowners who are in foreclosure or behind on their mortgage, property tax, or water bills. Sometimes homeowners are misled into thinking they are signing some other type of legal document or signing blank documents that they were told would lead to mortgage modifications; instead, the documents were used to transfer the title to their homes.
The legal process for restoring the deed to a property is often long, difficult, and expensive.
While Cobb was able to avoid eviction and remain in his home, the case to get his deed back is still in the court.
Home deed theft has become a growing concern in the real estate business.
In 2017, the FBI reported over 9,600 real estate and rental fraud victims had losses totaling over $56 million. In just three years, the latest available year for which data are available, this number grew to over 13,000 victims with losses totaling over $210 million. However, these statistics include all different types of real estate, rental, and timeshare crimes, and not just deed fraud. In New York City, officials received about 3,000 deed theft complaints in the past five years, a majority of which was in the Brooklyn borough
Experts say scammers also seek out vacant homes or properties that are not being regularly maintained or monitored. Using personal information from the internet, they could assume the owner’s identity or claim to represent them. While equipped with fake IDs and forged signatures, they file paperwork with the county’s register of deeds to transfer ownership of the property to themselves or a third party. Then, they sell the home or borrow against it and when they fail to make payments on a loan secured by the property, the owner could end up in foreclosure or be unable to sell, refinance or pass the home on to their loved ones.
Some experts say the pandemic may have worsened the situation of deed fraud and theft because the recording of deeds either slowed down or stopped in some instances for some period of time. The lag of information being added to the databases could be really problematic for some homeowners who may not even know yet and make repairing or trying to fix any type of deed issue take even longer, significantly increasing the cost.
“If you can pull off something, steal, steal something and not get caught or not even start to get caught or have someone even know about it for three months or four months, that’s a great leg up on doing damage,” says Ben Stucker, founder of Mortgage CS, a mortgage brokerage firm.
One of the most touted solutions to deed fraud that came out of the 2008 financial crisis was a title lock insurance. This solution, often advised for property and home owners as a way of preventing deed fraud and theft, has its problems as well. For one, it is not insurance at all but a service that monitors the property for owners and provides alerts in the event of a suspicious activity, only after it has occurred. And if a fraudulent title change has occurred, the service typically offers no resolution assistance to owners.
“The other option for established homeowners who fear title theft involves finding one of the so-called title lock companies that now offer to pay the legal fees of clients who have been victimized by deed fraud,” says Robert L. Fisher, Jr, an attorney at Cramer & Anderson who focuses primarily on Residential & Commercial Real Estate Law.
Experts say the most important thing a property owner or investor can do is monitor and maintain any property they own, live in or have interest in, especially if it is vacant. They can do this by occasionally checking all information pertaining to the property through the local county’s deeds office. For example, New York City has the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS), an online tool by the city’s Department of Finance that residents can use to check on records about their property.
Experts offer tips on how to spot deed fraud scams. Watch out for when:
You start receiving unusual mail with your address but another person’s name on it. Especially when it contains congratulatory messages like “congratulations on your new mortgage” or “welcome to the neighborhood”
You are asked to sign over your property to a third party in order to repair your damaged credit.
You are behind on your mortgage payments and receive numerous high-pressure solicitations.
A person claiming to be a specialist promises and guarantees saving your home from foreclosure.
You are advised not to seek out independent advice during negotiations when selling or buying your home.
When you are buying your home and it is currently a vacant property:
Do your due diligence before entering into a purchase agreement or closing on the property.
Look at previous title transfers in public records to see if there was a recent title transfer.
Request that the title company do a thorough check on the current property owner, verifying multiple forms of identification to prove they are in fact the owner before closing.
If you become a victim of deed fraud and your property has been wrongfully transferred to an illegal owner:
The first thing you should do is alert the county recorder’s office of the situation and file a report with the local authorities. If enough time has passed since the transfer and the property has been sold, it can be difficult to locate the scammer, especially if they used a fake name.
Hire an attorney to pursue the matter.