Fraudulent Deeds a Real Property Concern in Harris County

Irene Nuñez, longtime Harris County resident, was still mourning the loss of her father’s 2016 death when she was notified in 2018 that her father’s property had been sold fraudulently. A document had been filed with her deceased father’s signature forged on property documents to sell the property for cash. However, Ms. Nuñez isn’t the only one; Harris County residents have been plagued by deed fraud for years.

From nominal purchases like groceries or gas, to substantial investments like computers or televisions, consumers carry a receipt for their items. Acting as a pseudo-insurance policy, the receipt allows consumers to provide proof of ownership. With considerable purchases, such as a vehicle, consumers receive a title that is registered with the state, a process that every car owner must go through that is uniform throughout Texas. However, the same is not true for buying a house and receiving the deed.

In all 50 states, it is required that the transfer of real property utilize written documents that contain the title of the document, the name of the owner, a clause stating the transfer of ownership, the purchaser’s name, a formal description of the property, the signature of the owner, and a notarized acknowledgement. Because the document goes through so many hands, and because there is no one office or system to take care of the entire document, fraudulent deeds can be created by thieving hands forging identities and notary signatures.

Although Houston media has been relatively silent on deed fraud in Harris County since 2011, the problem still exists for many Harris County residents. Valerie Turner, Chief of Consumer Fraud at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, has worked land theft investigations and cases since 2003. In response to an inquiry about the issue, Turner noted that deed fraud is still prevalent in Harris County, as half of her filed cases and a third of investigations are related to real estate theft; “Once mortgage fraud was effectively shut down, thieves moved on to forged deeds.”

In response to deed fraud, the Texas Legislature has been nearly silent. A 2016 law passed by the Texas Legislature allowed for counties with a population greater than 3.3 million to require a photo ID when filing a real property document, such as a deed to a house; this law only affected Harris County, the only county in Texas that large. In mid-June 2021, Governor Abbott signed HB 3415, allowing for counties with a population over 800,000 to request photo ID when filing real property documents. This allows one check on the ability to fraudulently transfer property, as anyone attempting to file a deed transfer would need to provide a valid photo ID with their application.

Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth noted one benefit of requiring identification alongside applications: “[The Harris County Clerk’s Office is] documenting a resource that can aid the district attorney’s office in the prosecution of land thefts.” Still, Clerk Hudspeth feels that county clerk’s offices across the state need to conduct research to ascertain whether or not the identification requirement has helped deter deed fraud.

One preventative measure to solve the current fraud risk is to create a state-mandated property fraud alert system. For example, Tarrant County has a form for residents to fill out to monitor documents filed under a specific name; when there is a document filed under the name provided, the resident can opt to receive either an email or phone call regarding the document filed. While this doesn’t prevent fraud all together, it is a way for homeowners to stay in-the-loop should any document be filed that is possibly fraudulent.

In order to create a more permanent solution to deed fraud, Texas should implement a uniform process for counties across the state to handle property documents. Instead of the current system, where a deed of being passed between property owners, realtors, lawyers, notaries, and potential deceitful actors, there is a need for a more standardized system for homeowners and recorders to follow when transferring ownership of their property. By having a consistent structure, fraudulent filers would be deterred further.

To take action on the possibility of mitigating deed fraud further, property owners should call or write to their Texas state representatives and senators to request that legislation be created to centralize the process for formalizing a property deed. Constituents can use this state government website to see who represents them at the state and federal levels. Let’s send a clear message: Don’t mess with Texas property owners.

Originally published on Inside Policy & Politics on Chron.com on July 26, 2021.

Written by Cassidy Lee 

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