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A Common Real Estate Fraud in Georgia: Home Title Theft

Mar 14, 2024
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Imagine learning that all the hard work you put into building equity in your home has been completely swept out from beneath your feet. Gone not from fire or natural disaster but swindled out of your ownership into the hands of a criminal. If you’re a Georgia homeowner, here’s what you need to know about home title theft and protecting one of your biggest investments. 

What is Home Title Theft?

Home title theft (also known as deed theft) is a combination of two types of fraud– identity theft and mortgage fraud. It involves falsifying identity and homeownership documents to transfer legal ownership of a home to a criminal.

Stealing an identity can happen in a few different ways but the most common involve phishing schemes, data breaches, malware, and hijacking information through unsecure Wi-Fi networks.

How it Works

  • A criminal finds property with available equity.
  • The criminal steals a random person's identity to pose as a "homebuyer."
  • The criminal forges the property owner's signature on fake documents and transfers the property's deed to the fake "home buyer" (identity theft victim).
  • With legal ownership of the property, the criminal either sells the property or takes out a Home Equity Loan or Line of Credit, thereby gaining access to funds.
When a seller transfers ownership of a home to a buyer, they also transfer the deed and title. The deed is the physical legal document that transfers ownership from person to person; the title is a concept that represents all of the legal rights surrounding ownership and residential use. The deed is then sent to your county’s clerk of courts and recorded in its public records. In the state of Georgia, current law allows paperwork to be filed in clerk’s offices without proof of identification. Unfortunately, the county clerks only verify if the documents are filed correctly – they do not verify if the sale of the property is accurate. Once the forms have been submitted to the county clerk, the criminal officially and legally becomes the owner of the property.  

What Happens When a Deed is Stolen

If the deed to a home is stolen, the criminal typically sells the property or takes out a Home Equity Loan or Line of Credit against the property. Once the criminal has received the money from either the sale or loan, they disappear without a trace, leaving the real homeowner and identity theft victim unaware the fraud has even taken place. Most often, the crime isn’t discovered until after the loans are in default. 

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Safeguard Yourself from Home Title Theft

Home title theft is more common in states that are non-judicial, meaning the court only gets involved after a lawsuit has been filed. The state of Georgia offers homeowners a property registry called FANS, or Filing Activity Notification System. This is a free service that allows you to opt in to receive a notification when real estate and property records are filed that match the criteria you set. While the registry cannot eliminate fraud from happening, it will alert you anytime paperwork is filed on your home.

Your first line of defense from any type of fraud is ensuring your identity is secure. You should always take extra precautions in keeping your identity out of harms way. Learn more about identity theft and ways to keep your personal information out of the wrong hands – ‘9 Tell-Tale Signs You May Be The Next Identity Theft Victim'.

Additional Safety Steps You Can Take

  • Secure your personal information. Shred documents with sensitive information and never give out personal details online or over the phone.
  • Monitor your credit report for any suspicious activity or unauthorized changes to your existing accounts.
  • Look for missing bills and new mail from mortgage companies. Be sure to follow up to get more information.
  • Periodically check your property information through your county's deeds office. 

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Do This If Your Home's Title is Stolen

If you think you may be a victim of home title theft, take these steps to start the recovery process.

  • Contact your Mortgage lender and alert them of your situation.
  • File a report with your local police department.
  • Place a fraud alert with the three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. This makes it more difficult for someone to open new accounts in your name. 
  • Review your credit report and close any unauthorized accounts.
  • Keep track of all documents related to theft. 

Bottom Line

A home is more than an investment; it’s your sanctuary. Resolving home title theft may take years and cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars to rectify according to a recent article published by Atlanta News First. That’s why it’s advisable to take the proactive steps above for safeguarding your identity and home from title theft to protect your safe haven and financial future. 

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