Is home title theft a real thing? You bet it is, and here’s how to protect your property
Have you heard the commercials for a company, Home Title Lock, warning about how the title to your home can get stolen without you knowing it?
So many Texans have written The Watchdog to learn more.
“Are home title ads a scam or is this a real problem?” one man asked me.
“I figured the commercials for this were like many, playing on the fears of people, just to make money,” another said.
And another: “I am skeptical and would appreciate your advice.”
The Watchdog surveyed the county clerks in Dallas, Denton, Collin and Tarrant counties. I also talked to the company that bombards us with advertising.
I have experience covering this. A decade ago, I told the story of Norris Fisher, who stole 170 homes in Tarrant County (some kind of record) before he was shipped off to prison.
So yeah, it’s real. Crooks can forge names and use fake notary public seals and change the ownership of your house without you knowing it.
They can then use their “ownership” to borrow money based on the equity of your home. Or worse, they can try to sell it.
The good news is the company that advertises preventative measures, Home Title Lock, is legitimate. But at $15 a month, it’s a bit pricey.
The even better news is that each of the four large counties I talked to (and many more counties across Texas) offer a free service called “Property Theft Alert.” You sign up on the county clerk’s website, and if anything changes on your title, you get an email or text alert advising you. You can then file a complaint and work to get it reversed.
Dallas County: County Clerk John Warren says because his county is large and since so many property records are filed each day, theft does occur. Stats aren’t kept, but he says, “It’s not rare.”
The most likely technique to steal involves a fake quitclaim deed and deed of transfer, along with a fake notary seal. This is how a property’s ownership is moved without their knowledge and illegally.
“Later on when you want to sell the property, you find out you don’t own it,” he says. The thief has forged transfer papers or a name or a notary seal and stolen the name off the property title and replaced it with hers or his. The point? “They’ve taken out a loan and used that property for collateral. The real property owner is on the hook for whatever amount of loan they’ve taken out.”
The second technique is a fake mechanic’s lien placed on a property. A legitimate mechanic’s lien is a lien placed on a property by someone who believes they are owed money for work done. Contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and others can place these on a property, according to Texas law. But in a loophole, fake mechanic liens can be put on a property, too.
When it comes up for sale, the buyer and seller learn about the lien. Rather than delay the settlement, “they end up paying a lien that is actually fraudulent.”
In Dallas, like in most big cities, he says about title theft: “It’s a common practice. It doesn’t get the publicity that it should.”
Denton County: County Clerk Juli Luke has big news. The free property title alert service debuted in late September. She says a shopping cart will show a fee, but during checkout it will convert to no charge.
“We really do not see this in Denton County so much,” she says of the crime. “I almost don’t want to say it. I don’t want to jinx my constituents.”
Tarrant County: Chief Deputy County Clerk Clint Ludwig says Tarrant’s alert system, a decade old, is one of the first in Texas. Thefts are few, he says.
“The property fraud alert may have deterred them from Tarrant County and go to other counties,” he speculates. About 86,000 property owners have signed up.
Collin County: County Clerk Stacey Kemp says her county does not have many of these crimes. “If someone contacts us about a possibly fraudulent filing, we refer the person to the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office or local police department to file a report.”
In addition to the county’s decade-old free alert system, Kemp also occasionally audits property records with title companies “to make sure everybody stays honest,” she says.
Home Title Lock
I talked to Art Pfizenmayer, a retired FBI agent who is spokesman for Home Title Lock, a 6-year-old company in San Diego. He’s the guy you hear in the company’s many commercials.
He justified the $15 monthly charge for a service you can get free with a few promises. The company monitors property records constantly and can send a quick email or text if something changes on a subscriber’s property.
“If we don’t hear from you, we will reach out to you to make sure you understand a transaction has occurred,” he said.
A county doesn’t do that.
If you’re a victim, the company will file legal papers seeking a reversal.
A county doesn’t do that either. You have to do it.
Oh, and the company sends your property’s complete title history to you, too.
Whether all that’s worth $149 a year is up to you.
At the very least, you should do a web search with your county name and property title theft fraud alert to find it and sign up for free. If you can’t find it, call your county clerk’s office and ask if they offer the service and where to sign up.
Although this most often happens to vacant lots, second homes or uninhabited houses (where no one is paying attention), it can happen to your primary home or business property, too.
J.S. Ellis of Tyler wrote me this month. When he went to do cleanup work on a lot he owns, he found a “For Sale by Owner” sign posted.
“I called the number, but it was just an answering machine. I’d like to stop these people. Can you give me any advice?”
Yep. Take the sign down. Call the number again and if someone answers (unlikely) be prepared to record the call. Contact your county clerk to make sure the title is in your name. Ask if they have a free alert and sign up. Keep the sign as a record, and keep an eye on the situation now that you know you might have been targeted.
I heard back from him. He removed the sign, found the property is still in his name and signed up for free alerts.
“I will remain vigilant,” he promised.
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