Most consumers know about identity theft and have adopted safe practices for dealing with their personal information. But did you know thieves can steal the title to your property? Property title theft could happen right under your nose, so stay alert with these tips.
What is title theft?
Title theft is relatively rare, but when it happens it causes big headaches for owners. Here’s how it happens.
A title thief looks for a second home, a vacation or rental property or a vacant house. Elderly homeowners can also be targets. The thief will search public records to find the owner’s name, then build a personal information profile on that person through other online sources. The thief then creates fake IDs so he can pose as the real owner and goes to the county clerk’s office and transfers the home’s title to himself or a third party with whom he is working. Afterward, he will sell the house, take out a mortgage against it or rent the house out for monthly payments to himself.
If you’ve been scammed, you may learn of the theft in several ways.
- You stop receiving utility bills and property tax appraisals and bills, or your utility bills for previously unoccupied property suddenly become much higher because the property is occupied.
- You get a letter from the mortgage company that your mortgage has been paid off, or you receive a payment book from a new lender.
- Your renter stops making payments. When you question her about it, she tells you she’s sending them to the new owner
- You find squatters in your supposedly vacant house.
Damage is extensive
Property title theft is an elaborate and brazen scam. The thief can get caught in many ways. Because there are much easier forms of identity theft, this type is fortunately rare.
But if you’re a victim, damage from title theft is hard to repair. The thief may have taken a loan against the property, which gives that mortgage company a lien on it. He may have left utilities and property taxes unpaid. It will take time, patience and money to address these and other issues.
What to do if your title has been stolen
Once you learn you are a victim of this crime, immediately notify local or even state law enforcement. You’ll have to pay attorneys to restore the title to your name.
Prevention through vigilance
One key to title theft is an inattentive owner. Follow these steps to keep your title safe.
- At least twice a year, search for your property on the county clerk’s website. Make sure it’s still in your name and that there are no liens against it from lenders or contractors.
- Ask your county clerk’s office if they have a program for notifying you of changes in the status of your property title. If not, you can subscribe to a paid title protection service.
- Take advantage of your free annual credit report each year. Look for mortgage loans for which you never applied.
- Because paper statements in an unsecured mailbox are vulnerable to theft, cut back on the amount of regular mail you receive from your bank, mortgage company, credit card companies and other accounts. Switch to online business and statements. Use strong passwords and change them every three to six months. Help elderly family members accustomed to regular mail statements switch to these online preventative steps.