This 6-part series is written to educate stakeholders about the crime of home title theft or deed fraud. People who need to read these articles include elected officials, county clerks/recorders/assessors, detectives and prosecutors, corporate and private investigators, real estate lawyers, title and escrow professionals, and other real estate professionals including notaries public. My goal is to assist you in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of this crime.
The most common response from victims of home title theft or deed fraud is shock: They can’t believe how easy it was for fraudsters to “steal” their homes. In the US and most of the developed world, our systems of transferring ownership of property and of storing property ownership records evolved before the technology revolution. As discussed in detail below, the technology needed to created believable forged documents is now ubiquitous, cheap, and easy to acquire.
The Process of Transferring Property Ownership
Unlike personal property, real property cannot be physically moved from one person to another. It is fixed in place, so we have developed a process for transferring ownership or title from one person to another. We use this process to memorialize the transfer of ownership that results from a sale, a gift, or some other arrangement.
To transfer ownership of real property, we must take the following steps:
- A deed must be written that shows the transfer of an ownership interest from one person to another. This could be a grant deed, a warranty deed, a quitclaim deed (note the spelling, too many people incorrectly say “quick claim”), or a mortgage or deed of trust. Some states also use other lesser-known deeds.
- The party that intends to transfer an ownership interest must sign the deed.
- A notary must verify the identity of the signer, witness the signature, sign the deed herself (84% of notaries are women), and stamp the notary with her official seal.
- Finally, the signed and notarized deed must be filed with the county in which the property is located, and the clerk, recorder or assessor is charged with the responsibility of securing and protecting an official copy of the deed.
The Notary’s Job is to Ensure That Only the True Owner Signs the Deed
For 100s of years, we have relied on notaries to ensure that only the true owner can sign important documents like deeds. Many people in the real estate industry, including many notaries themselves, don’t realizes how incredibly important notaries are to this process. Their job is to prevent the impersonation of property owners and to enable people who need to rely on deeds (i.e., property buyers, lawyers, title insurance companies, and county governments) to observe the notary seal on the deed and trust that the deed is authentic.
In spite of this extremely important duty that forms the bedrock of our system of real estate ownership, notaries are vastly underpaid. For example, in Illinois and New York, notaries are prohibited from charging more than $1.00 and $2.00, respectively, for witnessing signatures.
Unfortunately, criminals now have the technology to defeat the efforts of notaries. Literally every computer – desktop, laptop, tablet or iPad – has the technology to create believable forged documents. Prior to about 25 years ago, a fraudster needed special printing equipment to make a credible fraudulent deed, but now he (men commit 73% of fraud) already has the technology in his home office.
In addition, fake IDs are easy to come by, and many of them are made with such care that they cannot be detected by the naked eye. There are countless websites offering fake IDs for purchase. Every year, US authorities seize thousands of fake IDs at ports of entry that are headed to recipients around the country, and untold numbers escape detection altogether.
Lastly, like fake IDs, fake notary stamps are also available online. Many reputable websites offer the service of creating legitimate stamps, and fraudsters use these services to create fraudulent notary seals. There are no checks and balances to prevent a con artist from creating a notary stamp with a fake name and license number or even using a real notary’s professional identifying information on a stamp. When the county clerk/recorder/assessor receives a deed, they have no way to know if the notary seal was made my a real or fake stamp.
Fraudsters Use Technology to Commit Deed Fraud
It has probably become obvious to you how fraudsters use technology to commit deed fraud, but let’s examine a few real life examples to gain a deeper understanding.
Example 1: The Fake ID
The property was a vacant second home owned by the victim, and it had fallen into disrepair. The fraudster impersonated the true homeowner and sold the property to a legitimate flipping company, who thought they were getting a good deal from which they could make a sizeable profit. When the fraudster appeared in front of the notary, he impersonated the true homeowner by using a high-quality fake ID. Nobody in the transaction – not the notary, not the buyer, not the title company, not the county recorder – knew that the true owner was completely unaware of the transaction.
Example 2: The Fake Notary Stamp
The property was vacant land owned by an elderly woman. The out-of-state fraudster pretended to represent the true owner in the sale of the property, and instead of using a fake ID, the criminal simply forged the entire deed, including the notary’s stamp and signature.
Example 3: The Notary was Conned Too
The greatest skill of a con artist is the ability to gain the trust of the people from whom he wants to steal money or from whom he needs assistance in the commission of his crimes. One particularly effective flimflam man (who is now in prison) explained to a notary that he assisted desperate homeowners who were in foreclosure. He explained that sometimes he has to act quickly, and his clients don’t have time to get to a notary. He politely asked the notary to pre-sign and pre-stamp a stack of deeds that he could use in emergency situations. The notary did, and the fraudster used those deeds in countless scams. Needless to say, the gullible notary had his license revoked.
Currently there is only one solution to forged deeds. It is a technology called Veri-Lock® that enables notaries to accurately verify the identity of the signers and enables the users of the notarized documents (i.e., title companies, lawyers, and county governments) to confidently authenticate official documents. If a jurisdiction required the use of Veri-Lock® or similar technology in all real estate transactions, home title theft and deed fraud would become thing of the past.
Full disclosure: I am the CEO of the company that developed the technology based on my two decades of battling forged documents as prosecutor and trial lawyer. If you need an example of legislation that would prevent home title theft and deed fraud, contact me and I will provide it to you.
Modern, widely-available technology enables fraudsters to circumvent the processes that have prevented document forgery for 100s of years. Unfortunately, this means that it is very easy for con artists to “steal” properties from the true owner. Continue reading this series to learn about the aftermath of this crime.
This is the second of six parts to the series entitled Anatomy of Home Title Theft in the Home Title Theft Newsletter.
December 20, 2022 – Part One, Identifying the Target Property
January 20, 2022 – Part Two, Stealing Title with Fraudulent Documents
February 20, 2022 – Part Three, Profiting from the Crime of Deed Fraud
March 20, 2022 – Part Four, The Aftermath: The Impact of Deed Fraud on Victims
April 20, 2022 – Part Five, Investigating Property Title Theft
May 20, 2022 – Part Six, How to the Government and the Title Insurance Industry can Prevent Home Title Theft