Owning your own home gives most people a nice sense of security. However, even after you sign on the dotted line and the property is yours, it could be in danger of title theft.
What is a Home Title?
When you purchase a piece of real estate, you are issued a property title by the town office or county recorder's office. The title has your name on it and property address and states that you are the legal homeowner, regardless of whether or not you have a mortgage.
This document proves that you are the legal property owner and have the right to possess, sell, or borrow against the property.
If you are wondering, "can someone steal my home title?" The short answer is yes.
Is Home Title Theft a Real Thing?
Home title theft is when someone other than yourself steals your identity and puts the home title in their name, changes the mailing address, and then proceeds to borrow against the property or sell it.
Although title fraud is fairly rare, it does happen. For criminals who are experts at identity theft, it could be a lucrative and successful endeavor. It is not the same thing as mortgage fraud, however.
How Does Home Title Fraud Work?
If someone gains access to your personally identifiable information (PII) and then uses that to steal your identity. The culprit could apply for a driver's license, passport, or other identity verification documents. With those in hand, they could pretend to be you and change the deed to your property, forging your signature. Once they do that, the home title theft occurs, and they could essentially take out multiple loans against it.
The owner of the property (you) may not even be aware of what is happening until you receive foreclosure notices from lenders on your home due to unpaid loans. The deed to your property is collateral and very valuable to an identity thief.
The FBI reported 301,580 cases of home title theft in 2017, which cost the victims $1.4 billion in losses.
Home title fraud begins with identity theft. There is so much information stored in public records, social media, and other online sources; it doesn't take that much digging for a cybercriminal to get what they need. Sadly, these perpetrators often targeted older adults who are not as fraud savvy and may have more equity in their homes. Anyone with second homes (like a vacation home, for example) may also be an attractive target for these types of thieves and to be a victim of home title theft.
What is Title Insurance on a Home?
When you purchase a home, the title company performs a title search looking for any previous owners who may have unpaid liens on the property. Before buying a home, it needs to have a clean title. Title insurance protects the seller from any issues so that when they go to sell the house, their insurance policy can fix any errors.
However, as the home buyer, your policy may not protect against a forged deed or identity theft. There could be other insurance policies that protect against this type of issue, but you would have to contact your insurance agent to find out.
Some Ways that Home Title Theft Occurs
One of the more common ways that scammers trick homeowners into home title fraud is through phishing emails. Cybercriminals use various techniques and usually send emails that look official requesting information such as your social security number, usernames, passwords, and other sensitive information that will get them access to your deed. They may even attempt to extort funds or demand fees in the form of electronic payment, gift cards, or wire transfer.
The FTC warns homeowners to never give out their personal information to anyone who contacts you through email unsolicited. Do not make any payments via gift cards, wire transfer, or payment apps; always use a credit card instead, which can be reversed and tracked for fraud.
Other scams may include the mail. Victims have reported receiving notices in the mail about a homeowners' warranty, and they need to "act fast" so they don't lose it. There is no such thing as a homeowners’ warranty, and these are scams meant to scare victims into giving up precious information that can lead to home title fraud.
How To Protect Yourself From Home Title Fraud
Even though the thought of someone stealing the deed to your home sounds nightmarish, there are things you can do to stay safe from home title fraud.
Your best defense against home title theft is awareness of cybercrime. Some other tips include:
- If you receive an email regarding your property, always verify the sender's address. Do not click any links in the email, and do not call the phone number listed. Go to the vendor's website from your browser and contact them from there to see if there is really an issue you need to address.
- Check your credit report regularly. You can get a free copy of your annual credit report from all three of your credit reports from Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax once a year. Review all the accounts and information for accuracy. Look for any home equity loans you did not initiate. Credit monitoring is one of the best ways to avoid identity and deed theft.
- Keep a close eye on your bank and credit card accounts. Review your monthly statements looking for any suspicious activity.
- Be sure to monitor your bills. If you are missing a utility or property tax bill, it could be an indication of identity theft. Contact the company immediately to find out what address they have on file for you. Sign up for online billing whenever possible.
- Check in with your local county office and check on your deed to make sure it is filled out correctly in your name and address.
- Always use strong passwords on all your online accounts and never reuse credentials on multiple websites.
- Never give out personal information to anyone who doesn't need it.
- Leave your passport and social security cards at home.
- Turn on two-factor or multi-factor authentication on all your devices and account for an extra layer of protection.
- Look into home title lock services. It's like an insurance policy against title theft and house stealing.
- Sign up for credit and identity theft monitoring services. There are some excellent identity theft protection companies that will help keep an eye on all your stuff so you can relax, knowing you are covered.