How Can Someone Steal Your House Deed?

October 16, 2023


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    How Common Is Deed Theft?

    Deed theft, also known as house stealing or title fraud, is the illegal transfer of a real estate title without the owner’s consent. Because homeowners can lose significant money on residential, retail, or timeshare investments, title scams are considered a form of real estate fraud [*].

    Although this crime seems complex, the FBI reports that deed fraud is fairly common. According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) [*]:

    There were ~11,000 victims of real estate fraud last year.

    And contrary to what you might think, these cases don’t always take place in areas with unoccupied real estate. In 2021, a federal grand jury indicted Jeffrey Young-Bey and Martina Jones for preparing fraudulent property deeds in densely-populated Washington D.C. [*]. After transferring titles to their own corporate entity, the duo pocketed over $500,000 in property sales.

    The unsettling reality is that any homeowner can become the victim of deed theft — particularly those unequipped with the knowledge and know-how to prevent it.

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    How Does Deed Fraud Happen?

    Over time, scammers have developed various methods of committing title theft, including:

    • Falsifying documents to transfer ownership. Scammers use property register databases to scour for target properties and then use property records as templates to forge deeds. In New York, for example, anyone can use the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) to locate property records dating back to the 1960s. With a forged deed in hand, all a scammer needs is false identification or a phony notary service to complete the transfer.
    • Impersonating property owners by using stolen identities. Fraudsters can use your birth date and Social Security number (SSN) to take out a reverse mortgage or refinance your home and cash out the equity. Sadly, family members are common inroads to identity theft. They know your personal information and can use it to open loans or other financial accounts.
    • Coercing vulnerable targets. Swindlers prey on homeowners in default. They masquerade as loan officers and “guarantee” a loan modification — or demand hefty fees to “help” homeowners avoid foreclosure. Some scammers use severe scare tactics to convince homeowners to transfer over their property rights, enabling the scammers to sell or rent out the property.
    • Insider collusion to access property records. The most devious grifters work with co-conspirators in the mortgage industry to transfer titles to shell companies. In a recent case, Clarence Roland III was sentenced to 120 months in federal prison for soliciting the help of co-conspirators in his real estate fraud scam [*]. They established 11 business entities to sequester the proceeds of fraudulent property sales.

    Who do scammers target?

    To optimize their gains, scammers target homeowners with sizable home equity. These are often seniors who overlook signs of deed fraud on their financial statements or credit reports.

    Homeowners with vacation homes or investment properties out of state are also at risk. These properties may be vacant for long periods, and scammers know that it’s harder for owners to keep an eye on them.

    Heirs of deceased owners are another highly targeted population. Scammers present themselves as the inheritor before the rightful heir has a chance to officially obtain ownership.

    📚 Related: The Best Identity Theft Protection for Seniors

    Warning signs of deed fraud or theft

    Scammers may be smart, but they often leave behind discernible evidence of fraud. These telltale signs of deed fraud should trigger alarm bells:

    • Unfamiliar bills, collection notices, or unexpected calls from debt collectors. These communications come from scammers using your credit card to make big purchases or open new lines of credit. If you are contacted by debt collectors, ask them to whom and how much you owe. They’re required to reveal this information under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) [*].
    • Notices of foreclosure or IRS notices about unpaid taxes. Receiving foreclosure notices or overdue property tax bills when you don’t have a mortgage may mean scammers purchased a house in your name. If you are struggling with mortgage payments, be wary of any guarantees of “saving” your home from foreclosure — these are likely scams.
    • Suspicious entries on your credit report and denial of credit. Fluctuations to your credit score can be early indicators of identity theft. Scammers may have secured and drained a home equity line of credit (HELOC) [*].
    • Your home has been rented out or sold. Evidence of someone living at your vacation home (or in a deceased parent’s former house) is a signature sign of home title fraud. Seeing your home listed on Zillow, Redfin, and are even more blatant indications of fraud.
    • Being asked to sign over your deed to repair credit. High-pressure solicitations are almost always too good to be true. Legitimate mortgage lenders will never ask you to transfer your property rights to them in exchange for a credit boost.
    • Dissuading you to seek independent advice during a sale. Conmen don’t want you to seek a second opinion — it would uncover their scams.

    How to Protect Your Home Title

    With so many gateways to deed fraud, it’s critical to safeguard your home’s title. Here’s how to defend against title theft:

    1. Monitor vacant properties and property records

    Start by securing certified copies of your deed via your county’s records website or tax assessor’s office. If you’re unsure in which county or parish your property is located, use the National Organization of Counties (NACo) website to find out [*].

    You’ll likely have to pay a small fee to obtain your record. When you do, examine it in detail. Make sure it lists the:

    • Correct owner name
    • Property ID number
    • Square footage
    • Price history and sale dates
    • Deed holder's mailing address

    If the address is wrong, go through your state’s franchise tax board to get the correct one on file for the Department of Finance.

    2. Initiate a probate for inherited properties

    A probate is the legal process of reviewing and distributing a deceased person’s assets [*]. To make sure everything runs smoothly after your passing, work with an attorney to draft a legalized will. Clearly outline who will be the owner of each property and who you’d like to name as executor.

    The executor will be responsible for filing the will with the probate court and locating, overseeing, and appraising the value of your assets — including property. Name someone you trust, like a family member, and inform them of any taxes or debt you may owe on your assets.

    📚 Related: 12 Scams Targeting Seniors & How To Protect Your Loved Ones

    3. Safeguard your identity — SSN, mail, bank accounts, etc.

    Identity theft can open the door to deed and real estate fraud, so it’s important to take steps to prevent it, such as:

    • Setting up a password manager to help you create and store unique passwords to your online accounts.
    • Enabling two-factor (2FA) or multi-factor authentication (MFA). Every time you log in, you’ll provide a one-time code sent to you via text, email, or an authenticator app.
    • Signing up for an identity monitoring service. You’ll get alerts if your identity, credit, or SSN is compromised.

    And don’t forget to secure your mail. Forward any mail you get at your vacation or rental properties to your primary address. And consider applying for a PO box as an additional stumbling block to prevent criminals from being able to steal your mail

    4. Address any unfamiliar mail that you receive

    The United States Postal Service (USPS) offers a free service called Informed Delivery that lets you digitally preview your mail [*]. Use it to identify mail you don’t recognize, see what mailpieces you should expect to receive each day, and (when applicable) forward mail to your primary residence.

    If you receive properly addressed but unwanted mail, write “Refused” on the unopened mailpiece and return it to the mail receptacle. 

    You can refuse some accountable mail by checking the "Refused" box on the delivery notice and providing your signature. Also get the sender's name and address if you need to report or block mail from a persistent sender.

    📚 Related: The 6 Best Home Title Monitoring Services of 2024

    5. Do your due diligence before you purchase property

    Some con artists trick people into accepting “once-in-a-lifetime” deals for abandoned property to steal their deeds or identities. Others assume the identity of a deceased person to “inherit” a piece of property and sell it to you — a form of identity theft known as “ghosting.”

    To avoid these decoys, homebuyers should check public records and property histories before ever making any purchases. 

    Scrutinize title transfers, and scan documentation for quitclaim deeds. These relinquish the owner’s legal right to a piece of land [*]. Before closing, your lawyer should check the sellers’ past purchase history and verify their identity with multiple forms of ID.

    6. Monitor your credit reports

    Most people don’t check their credit reports until applying for a loan. But reviewing your credit report regularly can help you detect fraud faster.

    Under federal law, you can order three free credit reports per year, one from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. Through December 2023, you can download a weekly credit report via

    When you’re looking at your report, check for:

    • New, unauthorized lines of credit
    • Closed lines of credit
    • Hard inquiries
    • Missed or past-due payments
    • Debt settlements
    • Refinanced interest rates

    If you notice suspicious activity, contact your bank and ask them to cancel your credit cards and close your accounts. You can also initiate a credit freeze so that creditors cannot access your credit file. Freeze and unfreeze your credit record for free at Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.

    📚 Related: 5 Important Online Safety Tips For Seniors

    7. Register for county-run property fraud alerts

    Most U.S. counties offer homeowner fraud alert programs. 

    • For instance, if you own property in one of the five boroughs of New York City, you can register for notifications through ACRIS [*]. 
    • In Los Angeles, you can get copies of documents that show changes in ownership, loans taken against your home, or Notices of Default or Notices of Sale in the mail [*]. 
    • And in San Diego, you can sign up for alerts when new documents or liens contain your personal, business, and trust names [*].

    You’ll need your property address, personal information, and your assessor's parcel number (APN) on hand to register. You can find your APN on your property tax bill.

    8. Consider home title monitoring

    Home title monitoring oversees your deed, equity, and mortgage so that you don’t have to worry about them. The best home title monitoring services come with identity theft protection, credit monitoring, and access to fraud resolution specialists who can help you restore and repair your credit.

    It might also be worth buying a title insurance policy, which covers costs associated with home deed theft. But be mindful of spam websites. Identity thieves spoof legitimate insurance websites to harvest the information you submit in your “application.”

    📚 Related: Home Title Lock vs. LifeLock: Which Is Better?

    How To Report Fraud

    Even the most fastidious homeowners can fall victim to home title theft. If you know or suspect a scammer has targeted you: 

    • Obtain a certified copy of the fraudulent deed. Obtain a copy of the most recent property deed through your county registrar to compare with your original. Beware that private title companies claim to provide “official” copies, but they come with high price tags and may serve as stepping stones to other phishing scams.
    • Consult an attorney to confirm your property ownership. An attorney can help you prove ownership through purchase documents, mortgage payment receipts, utility bills, and property tax payment receipts. An attorney can also draft an affidavit of ownership in which you state that you are the owner of your property [*].
    • Notify your local county recorder. The recorder will likely advise that you file a Deed/Mortgage Fraud Report with the Department of Records. In most states, you must send in physical forms — you can’t fill them out online [*].
    • Contact law enforcement in the municipality where the property is located. Explain how the scam occurred, and provide them with any documentation that you have. Include a copy of the fraudulent deed, a copy of your original deed, notices of foreclosure, your credit report, and debt collection letters. If you engaged with a scammer who posed as a real estate licensee, report the scammer to your state’s Department of Real Estate (DRE). The DRE will launch an investigation and may compensate you for incurred losses [*].
    • Report fraud to other federal agencies. Share your case with The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) via If you’re the victim of a mortgage or loan scam, submit a tip to the FBI on its website or call (800) CALLFBI [*]. Reference your police report, along with as many details about the fraud and scammer as possible. If applicable, report deed-related cases of identity theft at

    Last October, two U.S. representatives introduced the Good DEED Act to boost protections against fake notarizations, provide victim legal services, increase criminal penalties, and add deed fraud to the FBI’s Crime Reporting system [*]. 

    But even government measures can’t stop scammers from contriving new ways to exploit innocent homeowners.

    Protect your property by monitoring your title and digital identity with a service like Identity Guard. Identity Guard takes home title insurance protection one step further, immediately alerting you to any deed changes or data breaches that could lead to complete identity theft.

    Get 33% off when you sign up for Identity Guard today →

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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
    2. Medical identity theft
    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers