Do you own a home or property free and clear or have a large amount of equity in it?
If so, you could become a victim of real estate fraud.
In this scheme, criminals fraudulently record a lien against the property or illegally transfer the deed to the property to themselves or a third party. Depending on what county you live in, the fraud may not even be uncovered until the property goes into foreclosure or a property owner attempts to sell or refinance their property.
Unfortunately, elderly homeowners and non-English speakers are often targeted for this type of fraud. With seniors, criminals create a fake Promissory Note showing that the senior owes the crook money and then a fraudulent Deed of Trust is created that secures the Promissory Note. The fraudulent documents may not surface until the senior dies.
Wayne Bell, California Bureau of Real Estate Commissioner, said, “White-collar criminals are using a variety of fraudulent deed schemes to steal properties from their owners in order to re-sell or rent those properties, borrow money against those properties, or obtain lien rights that will be paid off upon the true owners’ death.”
Warning signs of deed fraud
If you receive a mailed notice or become aware of:
- A recorded document on your property where you never signed the document and your signature was forged;
- A recorded document on your property where ownership or a portion of ownership in your property was transferred or sold to another party without your knowledge;
- A recorded document on your property where the signer of the document was deceased at the time of execution of the document;
- A loan was taken out on your property without your knowledge; and
- Changes or alterations were made to a recorded document after you signed it.
Or if you:
- Stop receiving your property tax bill or notices;
- Receive a Notice of Default or Notice of Trustee’s Sale when you own your home free and clear of a mortgage loan, or when you have a mortgage and you are not late on your loan payments;
- Receive loan documents in the mail for a loan that was obtained without your knowledge; and/or
- Receive real estate documents in the mail for a transaction on your property that you didn’t know about.
What to do if you become a victim
You must act immediately.
- Gather and collect all of the information, documents and other evidence you have.
- Contact the police, sheriff’s department or law enforcement agency where the property is located.
- Contact the City and District Attorney’s Office where your home/property is located.
- Contact the office of the recorder in the county where your property is located.
- Contact your local city or county department of consumer affairs.
- Contact your title insurance company. A title insurance policy may have been purchased on your property when you first bought your property and you may have insurance against forged deeds. A title policy with forgery protection may be able to help you get the fraudulent deed removed from the record via civil litigation and/or to cover certain costs up to the policy’s coverage limits.
- Contact the California Secretary of State, Notary Public Section at (916) 653-3595 or sos.ca.gov/business/notary/.
- Contact the California Bureau of Real Estate at bre.ca.gov if a real estate broker or salesperson, or unlicensed person purporting to be a real estate licensee, is involved in the forging of any deed or fraudulent recording of a false, fictitious, or forged deed. The Bureau has a Consumer Recovery Fund that may be able to compensate you (up to statutory limits) if you meet certain requirements.
How do you fix it?
Because of the “cloud” on your home title created by fraud, an action in court must be started to “quiet” title to the property. That is the legal term which refers to cleaning, cleansing or clearing the title to the property’s official records by invalidating the forged, fraudulent and improperly recorded deeds and documents.
Sometimes a city attorney or district attorney may be able to obtain a court order quieting the title in connection with a criminal prosecution of the criminals or fraudsters for forgery, grand theft and other criminal counts.
If that is not a possibility, you should contact, meet with and hire a knowledgeable California attorney to bring a quiet title action. If you cannot afford a civil litigation attorney, you should call the State Bar of California or a local county bar association and ask for a referral to a public interest law firm.
The important thing is for you to act immediately to protect your ownership rights.
Deed fraud can scam you out of your home or property, so stay informed about the status of your property title and records. Property owners should periodically check title to their property, the same way they check their credit report. Also, if you are purchasing a property, ask the title company about protections and risks covered under their policy.
This post was based on a California Bureau of Real Estate (CalBRE) alert titled “Consumer Alert: What Should You Do If You Learn that a Forged and/or Fraudulent Deed Has Been Recorded Against Your Real Property” written by Commissioner Bell and attorney Summer Bakotich. To view the document, click here.