House theft scam: How criminals target homeowners with fake deeds

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DETROIT – Can a thief really steal your house? In a way, yes, they can — and it happens all the time.

Last fall, Darryl Sherman started getting voicemail and text messages from someone he had never met. A woman told Sherman she was planning on selling the house — his house.

She claimed to have purchased the Detroit house on Santa Clara Street – a house that had been in Sherman’s family for more than 50 years.

Sherman’s late mother-in-law, Marjorie Taylor and her (late) husband bought the house in 1970. When Marjorie Taylor died in 2010, the house was left to her family. Last year a renter was living at the house when Sherman started getting the strange phone calls and text messages from the woman who claimed his house was actually hers.

His case is not unique. Sherman’s attorney, Gilbert Borman, says he’s seen this type of scam so many times.

“People have suddenly gotten a knock on the door and been told, ‘You don’t own the house.’” The scam is pretty simple, Borman says: “Somebody concocted a fraudulent deed and recorded it. And now they’re trying to evict the actual owner.”

Borman says “quit claim” deed is the most common type of deed used for fraudulent deed scams. The fake quit claim deed created to take over ownership of Sherman’s house shows that in 2010, the year Taylor died, she allegedly signed away all her rights to the house. Her signature is on the deed, which claims that for $30,000, she had given legal ownership of her home to someone else- and the notarized deed looks legit. The notary who stamped the deed wrote onto the deed, “Commission expires in 2015.”

But there was a glaring problem. According to the state, that notary’s commission expired in 2006.

“And should not have been stamping any papers in 2010,” Sherman said.

Every county keeps a database of property deeds; counties keep track of property ownership through a register of deeds office. But some of deeds that get into county databases are fakes — dirty deeds. The problem is so common that someone once walked into the Wayne County register of deeds office and tried to file a fake deed for a house owned by one of the clerks who works there.

“And the attendant taking the document said, ‘OK, I’ll be right with you, walked 10 feet away, and came and said (to her colleague), ‘Is this guy buying your house from you? Is that your signature?’” recalled Bernie Youngblood, Wayne County register of deeds. The real homeowner replied, “That is my house. That’s my address. That’s not my signature.’”

Youngblood is in charge of the Wayne County Property Deeds Database. He said dirty deeds have become a big problem in every county across the country, but in Wayne County, one city has been especially targeted.

“I think the majority, if we were to take a look, has all been in Detroit,” Youngblood said.

Youngblood set up a special task force to deal with the problem, and since 2005, Wayne County’s task force has helped return 400 homes to their rightful owners.

The fake deeds get into the system in the first place because by state law, if a deed looks legit, the register of deeds is required to process it into the county database. And for now, if a title fraud victim wants their home back quickly, the process is difficult.

“They’ll have to contact an attorney and go through the court system to clear that title to prove that the property has been stolen from them,” Youngblood said. “So that’s very painful to do.”

“I would estimate it right about $20,000,” Darryl Sherman said of his legal expenses.

Proving to a judge that his house is really his was a long, expensive headache, and Sherman says the house was damaged by his renter, who said he was in on the plan to steal the house.

“To them, it’s easy money and they don’t want to work.,” Sherman said. “But you don’t have to victimize people. You know, do something else.”

Sherman finally got his house back through civil court. The case is under investigation by the county.

Below are some common questions about title theft and helpful links for fraud monitoring programs.

Below are some common questions about title theft and helpful links for fraud monitoring programs.

Is there anything I can do to keep this from happening to me?

You can’t stop someone from: 1. Creating a phony deed and then 2. filing it with your county’s register of deeds office. But many counties have free fraud monitoring programs, and if you’re signed up, your county will immediately alert you if someone files any sort of action on your property. Paid services can only do the same thing – alert you after the fact. To sign up for your county’s program, click a link below. If you don’t see your county listed below, contact your county’s register of deeds.

Why can’t the county Register of Deeds office just stop accepting fake deeds?

Michigan law says that as long as a deed is properly filled out, it must be accepted by the county register of deeds. State statute section 565.201 “Recording Requirements Act of 1937″ 1(i)5 states, ” A register of deeds shall not reject an instrument for recording because of the content of the instrument if the instrument complies with the provisions of this act and any other act relating to the recordng of instruments.”

Is there anything being done to change the law?

Yes. The Wayne County Register of Deeds has proposed a change in state law that would give all Michigan counties more authority to report fake deeds to prosecutors.

Are there any specific types of properties that get targeted for title fraud?

All types of properties are potential targets, but experts tell Local 4 the following situations are particularly vulnerable:

  • Properties which appear vacant, abandoned or unkempt
  • Properties which have not changed ownership in decades
  • Properties with recently deceased owners
  • Properties at risk of foreclosure
  • Properties with out-of-town owners

What do title thieves do with the property they steal?

  • If the property is vacant, sometimes title thieves will rent it out, collecting steady income from property that isn’t theirs. In these situations, renters are victims, too.
  • Sometimes title thieves sell the property. Unsuspecting cash buyers lose more money than anyone else in this type of crime -sometimes their entire life savings.
  • Other times title scammers use the scammed property as collateral to take out bank loans.

What crimes are title thieves charged with?

The most common charges are:

Forgery of a Document Affecting Real Estate, MCL 750.248b; and

Uttering and Publishing a Document Affecting Real Estate, MCL 750.249b

Also, under MCL 55.309(1)(B), can make it a felony if a notary violates the notary act when notarizing a document concerning real estate.

Isn’t there any way I can prevent being victimized by title thieves?

Whether it’s a downpayment on the purchase of a home or a security deposit on a rental, to protect yourself, experts say:

Check the title on any property you’re getting involved with to be sure who owns it. You can do this in person at your county’s register of deeds. In some counties you can search online for free.

Before you sign anything, take a picture of the driver’s license of anyone who claims to own a property you’re getting involved. Legitimate owners won’t have a problem with this.

Never buy property without title insurance.