Stealing Your Home on Paper
Unfortunately, the crime of stealing your home, on paper, continues.
I saw a case on the news just this week, where a couple returned from a vacation and found that their house was no longer theirs! They had the home ready to sell. It appeared it was sitting empty and they were waiting until after their vacation to put it on the market. In the meantime, some other party managed to get the deed transferred to another name, and the home had already been "flipped" once. The police are still tracking the paper trail, and meanwhile the couple is currently out one house and in need of a lawyer.
How can this happen? Well, identity theft is still alive and well. And we don't have the laws to cope with it. Frankly, it's not the fault of the police. How many are taught forensic accounting?
A hot housing market is likely to continue to fuel this crime. After all, criminals go where the money is.
It's a scary thought that your home can suddenly end up in someone else's hands. Another way this crime happens is that your home can have another mortgage taken out on it. Then, the person who has taken out the mortgage flees with the money, leaving the homeowner holding the bag. In some jurisdictions, the courts have actually UPHELD these phoney mortgages, and people who have had paid off homes are now paying for the crime of another.
Our laws are failing us here.
However, we can do something to take better care of ourselves, and protect our private information. No crook can steal your home (either by a phoney mortgage or actual transfer of the deed) without having some information about YOU, the owner. The easiest solution? Make sure that you shred all documents which have ANY personal information about you, before you throw them out. You can get a paper shredder for about $30 at your favorite local office supplies store. Sure, you can get more expensive models, but the point is: the price shouldn't keep you from doing this.
You also have to closely monitor your mail. Pick it up as soon as you can after delivery. Consider a lock of some kind on your mailbox, which allows letters in but won't allow thieves to just cruise along a street and take the mail out of it. This is a great way for thieves to get to know you. While it may be a pain to have to go pick up parcels or letters that are too big to fit your mail slot, it's far better than having your home suddenly become someone else's.
Also, check your deed periodically. While it won't guarantee you'll avoid a problem, it may give you some comfort.
Finally, consider getting title insurance. You'll have to check the exclusions, and be sure that the case of someone "stealing" your title is actually covered. While it may not keep your home from disappearing into someone else's hand, it could be one way to at least protect your investment, if not your ownership.
Keep in mind that this crime usually happens in middle class to upper class neighborhoods. Not always, but usually. Criminals do like the "easier" crime of putting a mortgage on your property, because they can skip town with the money. As a result, they may also target older couples who are more likely to either have the home paid off or close to. This is where protecting your mail and personal information is very important.
In the case I saw on the news, the criminals targeted an upscale home which was sitting empty. Again, it was clear to the thieves that the home was likely changing hands, which is another good time to create a confusing paper trail. Keeping your home with that "lived in" look will help.
If this does happen to you, be prepared to get a lawyer -- a good one -- and fast. Be ready to do some of your own footwork, because even some of the lawyers will be challenged on such cases. (I heard of one case of a woman who was an accountant, who managed to sort out the books on her problem and did her own forensic accounting. She was successful in getting her home back.) And don't give up.
My family will be on vacation for the next few weeks. See you in October! (And here's hoping our house is still ours when we get back.)