Recently our office has received inquiries regarding advertisements from companies offering services to protect against home title fraud, also frequently called deed theft. Many do not know what title fraud is, or whether they need to pay a service to guard against it. The concept of title fraud generally involves recording forged or altered documents in a county’s registry that purport to transfer ownership of real estate from one party to another. Once a county’s records have been updated to show the fraudster or their affiliated entity as the property’s owner, the criminal may attempt to sell the property or pledge it as collateral to an unsuspecting lender. When the original homeowner finally realizes something is amiss, the fraudster has disappeared with whatever money could be acquired from the scheme.
Though it is relatively uncommon, this type of fraud does occur, and victims are faced with expensive and protracted paths to resolving competing claims of ownership. Analysts studying title fraud have identified certain types of properties that criminals may target: vacation properties, investment properties, and homes owned by the elderly. The commonality in this group is that owners of such properties may be less likely to notice, or slower to react to, changes in public records triggered by fraudulent documents. They may be less likely to care if mail is delivered to their home bearing the name of an unfamiliar addressee, which is often how these crimes are initially discovered.
The companies offering some sort of protection against title fraud cannot prevent it. They simply enact measures to monitor changes in their customers’ property records, who are notified whenever suspected fraud occurs. We generally advise clients that many of the records overseen by title fraud companies are accessible online without any fees. Some counties have even created free fraud detection services that will alert a registered user to any future filings that match a list of name variations provided by the homeowner. Additional protective measures can include monitoring your credit report, occasionally checking public records related to your property, and further investigation if mail is delivered to your property addressed to the name of some unknown person or company. An owner’s policy of title insurance, which insures against losses caused by certain defects in your chain of ownership, should also be purchased whenever real property is acquired. If you have any questions about title fraud, please contact an attorney with Black, Slaughter & Black, PA in our Greensboro, Charlotte, Coastal or Triangle offices to discuss further.