Thursday, January 11, 2018

Home Title Lock/Property Fraud

     If you listen to the radio you probably have heard an ominous radio advertisement about thieves taking title to your home, refinancing the mortgage and leaving you to suffer when the mortgage is not paid, resulting in you being served as the unknown tenant in the bank’s foreclosure.  The advertisement then offers to protect you by monitoring your property title for only $9.99 per month.  Their tag line is “Title Insurance Doesn't Protect You and Neither Does Your Bank or Identity Theft Protection. HOME TITLE LOCK DOES!”

     According to the FBI, property and mortgage fraud is the fastest growing white-collar crime in the United States. The threat described above is real and I have been involved in property fraud cases in the past.  These usually involved sophisticated parties with knowledge of deeds, recordings and the like, and the willingness to steal notary seals and alter corporate records.  The game has now changed due to online records and images, high quality printers and e-recording.  My most recent property theft case was against a lender who had foreclosed a property in 2014 that sat vacant for two years.  Thieves simply created a deed template, used Photoshop to insert a real signatures and notary stamp from prior recorded deeds in New Jersey on the Florida forgery, added a few fake unintelligible witnesses and then slipped a clerk at a title company a few dollars to e-record the deed. 

     The thieves used a fake title company name as the deed preparer, and a fake trust name as the new owner, without naming an actual Trustee (which is required to have a valid grantee/buyer in Florida as Trusts alone cannot hold title under Florida law).  Since the property had been foreclosed, it was free and clear of liens and mortgages, and the deed forger could have easily obtained a loan secured by the property.  Alternatively, and the more common criminal act, is the deed forger uses the deed to take physical control of the property, acting as landlord to rent the home while its true owner thinks it is vacant, waiting for a future sale.

    The forgery was discovered by the new owner who purchased the house days after the forged deed was recorded.  She was denied homestead, made a claim on her title policy and we successfully filed suit to quiet title.  The cost was paid by the title company because the forged deed was recorded before her insured deed.  However, if this happens to you after your deed is recorded, your title insurance owner’s policy will not insure the title claim, forcing you to have to cover the cost of any lawsuit to correct the defect.
   
   Home Title Lock is a for profit company that claims to protect your title for only $9.99 per month.  Essentially they monitor the title to you property by searching public records for any changes, such as any newly filed deeds, mortgages or liens.  They claim that they use “proprietary technology (that) forms a virtual perimeter around your home and property title.”  If an instrument is recorded, they claim they “ALERT you immediately with key information such as names involved with the transaction, the amount of loan, date of such loan, (and sic) document name.”  They also claim that if a detected activity is not authorized to “mobilize all our resources to help you shut it down - FAST!”  However, the website provides no documentation on this last element, which would normally require local legal assistance and a high legal cost. 

    Alternatively you have two other free options that you can use to protect the title to your property.  The easiest approach is to simply act as your own monitor of title by searching the public records to see if any changes have occurred.  All counties in Florida maintain a name index which is accessible online (Using www.tinyurl as a prefix: Palm Beach: qejqo; Broward: ycmj9fce; and Miami-Dade: ybzr6xds).  Simply search your name to determine if anyone has tried to file a deed or lien using your name as a forgery.  A ninety day search of my own name showed a deed, notice and mortgage (but not any of my own property), so no issues.
         
   An alternative offered by some County Clerks of Court is a Property Fraud Alert registry.  Palm Beach County (tinyurl.com/ya9m766b) allows owners to register to receive free alerts when a document such as a deed or mortgage is recorded with the clerk using your name or business name.  Sign-up is a one page application that simply requests your name and whether you wish to be contacted by phone or email. 

  Being vigilant regarding your most valuable possession is the only way to protect yourself from this growing problem.  Monitor your title, register for fraud alerts, petition your local county to offer this service if not yet available, and take quick action if anything is recorded.  To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and in this battle, that is the real key.

Michael J Posner, Esq., is a partner in Ward Damon a mid-sized real estate and business oriented law firm serving all of South Florida, with offices in Palm Beach County.  They specialize in real estate and can assist owners in addressing title fraud issues.  They can be reached at 561.594.1452, or at mjposner@warddamon.com

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