Home title theft is when someone illegally changes someone’s property deed into a different name. A criminal may steal a home title to access the home’s equity line of credit or to sell it and pocket the money. Regularly vacant homes, such as rental and vacation homes, are common targets for property title theft.
Did you know that it’s possible for someone to steal your home title? While they may not physically steal your house, they can steal the title and access your home equity line of credit (HELOC), or sell the property without your consent. From there, they’ll pocket the money and leave you to clean up the financial mess. This sounds daunting, but the good news is that there are some simple steps you can take to prevent it. There are also some easy ways you can spot title fraud.
If you’re a senior citizen homeowner or the owner of a vacation or rental home, your home could be more of a target than others. Keep reading to learn how home title theft occurs, and what to do to prevent it from happening to you.
What is home title theft?
Home title theft — also known as deed fraud, deed theft, mortgage fraud, and house stealing — is when a criminal illegally transfers someone else’s property deed into their own name. Scammers do this by forging documents and filing paperwork with the county records to transfer ownership of a property to themselves or a third party.
In most cases, the scammer does not actually physically take control of the home. Instead, they steal the money that comes from having a home. Thieves could borrow against your home equity, or pose as the owner before “selling” the home and pocketing the money.
How does home title theft happen?
Home title theft occurs when a criminal creates a forged deed to your home so that it is no longer in the property owner’s name. The criminal may do this to claim ownership of the home themselves. A criminal can do this if they manage to collect enough sensitive information and personal details about the homeowner. This is identity theft.
This information can be accessed through social media, malware, unsecured WiFi, the dark web, and phishing scams. These are the most common ways a scammer gets the necessary information to carry out a home title theft.
While all homes could be potential victims of home title theft, homes where the owner is not usually there that are more susceptible. Because of this, rental homes, vacation homes, and senior citizens are the most common targets for deed theft.
What happens if a home title theft occurs?
Home title theft can have drastic consequences on your life. The scammer could sell your property to a third party and take the profits for themselves. Or a scammer could pose as you — the homeowner — in an effort to borrow against your home equity. If you don’t have a HELOC, the criminal could open one, and then take out the available equity.
If not addressed, these actions can lead to you losing your property.
Is this a common problem?
The good news is that home title theft is fairly uncommon. While it’s something to be aware of, it doesn’t need to be too high on your list of worries. But just because it doesn’t happen often doesn’t mean it never happens. The FBI reported that there were 11,578 victims of some form of real estate/rental fraud in 2021.
While this may sound daunting, there are different steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim of home title theft.
Ways to protect yourself from home title fraud
The steps you can take to protect yourself from title fraud are not only effective but also simple. These small steps can add a great amount of security to your life and can protect you from both home title fraud and identity theft.
Invest in title lock insurance or a title monitoring system
A great thing you can do to protect your home title is to purchase a policy from a title insurance company. An owner’s title insurance policy protects the legal owner from any liens or claims filed after the property has been purchased by them.
If you’re not interested in title insurance, you can look into title monitoring. Home title monitoring keeps an eye on the status of your property title. It will notify you of any services or changes made to your title, equity, or mortgage. While you can pay for this service, there are several free options available that can monitor your title for property fraud.
Look for missing bills
If you’re no longer receiving the bills to your property, this could mean the criminal changed the mailing address. Criminals do this in the hope that you won’t notice new charges that come from people living on a supposedly vacant lot.
If this happens, contact your provider and check the address listed on your property records.
Regularly monitor your credit report
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to protect yourself from deed theft is by regularly monitoring your credit report. Your credit report will clue you into any signs of title fraud. Look for the following on your credit report:
- A dip in your credit score
- Loans you didn’t take out
- New accounts you didn’t open
- A new address or phone number
- Other changed or incorrect personal information
All of these are signs of fraud. If they appear, report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission and change the passwords and pins to your accounts.
In addition to monitoring your title, you can also hire a credit monitoring service to keep an eye on your credit score. If any sharp dips occur without your knowledge, you’ll receive an alert and be able to act more quickly to any fraudulent activity.
Regularly check in on your properties
As mentioned earlier, homes that aren’t regularly inhabited are at higher risk than other properties. If the owner isn’t regularly checking on that property, it could make it easy to “sell” the house without the real homeowner knowing. If you have a rental or vacation home that isn’t regularly used, check in on it or have a trusted friend or neighbor do so.
Be cautious online
One of the best things you can do to prevent home title theft, and identity theft in general, is by taking the necessary security measures online.
Have secure passwords and a reliable security system set up on your computer. Do not share personal information freely or with unidentified sources. Do not give anyone your financial information until you have verified the person. Taking these simple steps will save you a lot of pain in the future.
How do you know if you’ve been a victim of home title theft?
If you don’t check on your properties often, or haven’t had the time to review your credit report, it can be difficult to tell whether you’ve been a victim of home title theft. Here are a few signs of home title theft to look out for:
- Your home title monitoring service notifies you of changes made to your title. This could include a change of address, your name being removed, or a new phone number.
- Unauthorized changes show up on your credit report, such as new loans or accounts.
- You get notified about a mortgage policy you never registered for.
- You no longer receive bills for that property.
- It looks like someone has started living on the property that’s usually vacant.
- You receive a foreclosure notice without warning. This could mean a criminal stole your home title, took out a mortgage, borrowed against the home’s equity, and made off with the cash, leaving the unpaid bills behind.
Unfortunately, home title theft victims don’t know they’re a victim until after it’s happened. So, once it’s happened, it’s more of a matter of damage control than anything else.
Steps to take if your deed is stolen
If your home title has been stolen, act quickly. Criminals steal your identity to steal your home, so you should start by treating it as a case of identity theft. These are the next steps to take according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):
Do the following right away:
- Call the companies where the fraud occurred. Explain the situation to them. Ask them to close or freeze any accounts they can. In addition, change passwords and PINs for all your accounts.
- Contact one of the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) and place a fraud alert. Be sure to get your credit report from them, too.
- Report the incident to the FTC online or over the phone.
- Go to your local police department with all the necessary documents and report the crime.
These are a few other steps you should take to help stop the damage:
- Call your home title monitoring provider or credit monitoring service. They can lay out additional steps you should take.
- Alert your mortgage lender and other financial institutions to what has happened.
- Report the incident to the county clerk and police department.
- Freeze your credit.
How do I see my home title?
If you want to see your home title, visit your local county courthouse. They’ll be able to access the records and, for a small fee, copy them for you.
How can someone steal your house deed?
A house deed can be stolen through identity theft. Once a criminal gets enough personal information, they can use it to transfer the deed to their name and become the property owner.
- Home title theft is when someone illegally transfers someone else’s property into a different name.
- Rental homes, vacation homes, and senior citizen homeowners are easy targets for home title thieves.
- Missing bills, a major change in your credit report, and a sudden notice of foreclosure are all signs of a stolen title.
- Criminals may use title theft to dip into home equity or fraudulently sell the home.
View Article Sources
- Internet Crime Report 2021 — Federal Bureau of Investigation
- What To Do Right Away — Federal Trade Commission
- How Long Does a Title Search Take? — SuperMoney
- How To Transfer Ownership of a House With a Mortgage — SuperMoney
- What Is a Grant Deed and How Does It Work? — SuperMoney
- Deed of Reconveyance: What Is It and How Does It Work? — SuperMoney
- Bargain and Sale Deed: What Is It & How Does It Work? — SuperMoney
- What Does Free and Clear Mean in Real Estate? — SuperMoney
- What is a Defeasance Clause in Real Estate? — SuperMoney
- Deed of Trust vs. Mortgage: 5 Important Differences — SuperMoney
- Everything You Need To Know About Closing a Mortgage — SuperMoney
- What is Fractional Ownership? Pros And Cons Of Fractional Home Ownership — SuperMoney
- 11 Ways To Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft — SuperMoney
- The IRS, Scammers And Identity Theft — SuperMoney
Camilla has a background in journalism and business communications. She specializes in writing complex information in understandable ways. She has written on a variety of topics including money, science, personal finance, politics, and more. Her work has been published in the HuffPost, KSL.com, Deseret News, and more.