Can Hackers Actually Steal Your Home Title?
Dion Stevens’ parents owned their home in Queens, New York for 40 years. But shortly after they moved out, a gang of thieves used fraudulent driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, and forged deeds to impersonate the elderly Stevens couple and sell their home to unsuspecting investors for over $1 million [*].
While “house stealing” seems improbable, this is a very real crime. According to the FBI [*]: Americans reported losses of almost $400 million from real estate-related fraud in 2022.
If you look after several properties or have equity in your home, you could be a target for home title theft. In this guide, we’ll explain what home title theft is, how it happens, and how to protect your assets from con artists.
What Is Home Title Theft? How Does It Happen?
Home title theft — also known as real estate fraud — is a type of fraud in which criminals use stolen personal information to forge title paperwork and fool authorities into giving them the deed to someone’s home.
“Deed theft is increasingly pervasive and a growing challenge.”
Here’s how home title theft happens:
- Fraudsters select a target property. In most home title theft scams, con artists either target homes with substantial equity or vacant houses, like vacation homes or rental properties with absentee landlords.
- Then, they steal the target’s identity. Fraudsters gather personally identifiable information (PII) about the homeowner, including basic details — such as their full name, address, and phone number — as well as sensitive data, including copies of their passport or Social Security card.
- Next, they impersonate the homeowners. Armed with the stolen PII, fraudsters pose as the homeowners to submit forged documents to financial institutions and home title companies or when meeting prospective buyers.
- After that, they submit false documents. The fraudster may submit the forged documents to the county recorder's office to trick a notary into legally approving the transfer of ownership.
- Finally, they attempt to sell the home or access its equity. If the fraudulent transfer is successfully recorded, the fraudster could sell the property or use its equity as collateral in loan applications (such as in mortgage fraud).
💡 Related: The 5 Best Home Title Protection Services in 2023 →
What Can Scammers Do If They Steal Your Home Title?
Home title theft is a rare crime as the real estate industry, lenders, and government entities have tight safeguards to protect property owners.
But while it's unlikely that someone will steal your home, you could lose a lot of time and money resolving the issue. Identity thieves can still cause serious damage with a fake ID in your name and a stolen deed.
Here are five ways fraudsters could exploit you with home title theft:
- Steal your home equity. Fraudsters can use a reverse mortgage to access the equity built up in your house without ever selling the property.
- Sell your property. Impersonators with a fake deed could potentially sell your home to an unsuspecting victim. As the thieves vanish with the victim’s money, you and the victim will have to sort out the issue with the authorities.
- Rent your property. Con artists can illegally rent your property to tenants and then pocket the rental income.
- Take out loans. Criminals can exploit the equity in your home to take out lines of credit — including loans, mortgages, or a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). You could be left with massive debt until you are able to prove your innocence.
- Damage your credit: As fraudsters run scams with your home title and target you with other types of identity theft, they could harm your credit score. The repercussions could make it hard to secure a loan, mortgage, or even a job.
The bottom line: Home title theft is an uncommon but potentially damaging crime. At best, you’ll be stuck spending days or months proving your innocence and untangling the mess that the thief has created.
How Common Is Home Title Theft in 2023? Who’s Most at Risk?
According to the FBI, there were 11,727 real estate and rental fraud victims in 2022 [*] — making it one of the least common types of fraud.
However, while this type of real estate fraud is relatively uncommon, it still harms many people. And that begs the question: who is most likely to be a victim?
Fraudsters who attempt home title theft tend to target specific types of homeowners:
- Senior citizens. Fraudsters often target older people, as they have more wealth, tend to be more trusting, and are less savvy about sophisticated scams. Con artists can trick seniors into disclosing personal information on the phone — especially if they gain their trust and make tempting offers of “refinancing” the property.
- Vulnerable homeowners. Many victims of home title theft come from low-income households. Fearing foreclosure, such victims are easily swayed by cash offers from crooks.
- Homeowners who own a vacation home or rental property. Unlike a primary residence, these properties are often vacant and not closely monitored. A Toronto couple recently discovered someone had sold their rental home while they were living overseas [*].
- Homeowners who have been a victim of identity theft. Nearly half of all identity theft victims are repeat victims [*]. If scammers already have your PII, they may attempt home title theft.
- Homeowners with paid-off properties. Fully-owned properties are lucrative targets for fraudsters who want to borrow against equity. Also, after paying off a mortgage, homeowners may not monitor their credit score or home equity as closely as before — and that’s when criminals could strike.
How To Tell If You’re a Victim of Home Title Fraud: 8 Warning Signs
If you suspect that you might be a victim of real estate fraud, it's crucial to take action quickly to protect your property and financial standing.
Here are eight warning signs of home title theft:
- Letters or statements about mortgages you didn’t apply for. Receiving these unsolicited communications is a huge red flag that someone may have taken out a mortgage with your property as collateral.
- Strange accounts on your credit report. Identity thieves use your personal information to open new credit card accounts or take out loans in your name.
- You stop receiving bills or mail at your home. If your regular mail suddenly stops, a fraudster may have changed your address. Thieves use this scam to intercept mail and steal personal information, which they can use for home title theft.
- Someone you don’t know claims to have a rental agreement for your home. Rental scams don’t always mean that you’re the victim of home title theft, but they are red flags that criminals are running scams by using your identity.
- Your county clerk notifies you of a change in your home ownership status. Rosemarie Mika received a letter from the Nassau County Clerk announcing that she no longer owned her $350,000 home. It turned out that the 78-year-old’s neighbor had forged documents — and sold the house for $10 [*].
- You receive foreclosure letters. Scammers take out loans with no intention of paying them back. Letters about liens on your house or foreclosure warnings are clear indications that someone has stolen your deed and used it to secure a loan.
- Signs of life at a supposedly vacant property. If you visit your vacation home or rental property to find food remnants or mail in someone else’s name, a fraudster may have claimed ownership of your property.
- Alerts from your identity theft protection service. Digital security providers like Aura will notify you of any suspicious activity on your financial accounts or property title.
How To Protect Yourself From Home Title Theft
- Obtain home title insurance
- Monitor your credit reports
- Pay attention to incoming bills
- Check public records for errors on your home title
- Practice good cyber hygiene
- Use Safe Browsing tools
- Learn about phishing and social engineering scams
- Check if your personal information is on the Dark Web
- Consider signing up for home title monitoring
Home title theft can have serious ramifications for victims. Here are nine steps to avoid falling victim to home title theft:
1. Make sure you have home title insurance
Home title insurance is a common prerequisite for any real estate purchase, as it protects both the mortgage lender and buyer against any conflicts over the home’s title after the sale has closed.
For example, if someone forged the deed to the house you currently live in and the real owners come knocking on your door, home title insurance would protect you against any damages.
This is different from home title monitoring, which is an ongoing service that can warn you of any changes to your home title that happen in the future.
2. Monitor your credit reports for signs of identity fraud
Keeping a close eye on your credit reports can help you catch early signs of identity fraud that could potentially lead to home title theft. A quick response may save you from months or years of hardship.
You can check your credit reports yourself or use a credit monitoring service to constantly monitor your reports and alert you to signs of fraud.
Pro tip: Order your free credit reports from annualcreditreport.com. Until the end of 2023, every American is entitled to one free credit report every week from each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
3. Pay attention to incoming bills
Identity theft often appears in your mail. Make sure you check incoming bills for errors (or unexpected accounts) as soon as they arrive. Be especially cautious if you start to receive bills for loans or mortgages that you didn’t apply for.
If you have any suspicions (even without hard proof), contact your utility or mortgage company for assistance.
🎯 Related: Someone Stole My Mail — What Should I Do? →
4. Check public records for errors on your home title
You can check your home title and review your property records at your local public records office. Look for unfamiliar activities or documents on the record — like strangers’ names or forged signatures.
You may need to make an appointment and bring at least two forms of identification, such as your birth certificate, passport, or utility bill.
5. Practice good cyber hygiene
Identity thieves can find your personal information on social media or other online sources and use it to apply for credit cards, rent a car, or get a driver’s license.
It’s good practice to clean up your online profiles or set them to private so that only your close friends and family can see sensitive information like your address, date of birth, or phone number.
6. Use Safe Browsing tools
Many identity thieves use fake websites to steal your personal information. Safe Browsing tools warn you if you’re entering a potentially dangerous website, protect your networks against hacking, and secure your devices and data.
Aura’s all-in-one digital security solution includes a virtual private network (VPN), antivirus software, password manager, phishing site protection, and more. Learn more about how Aura keeps you safe online →
7. Learn about phishing and social engineering scams
Phishing occurs when scammers send emails, texts, or phone calls impersonating someone you trust — in order to steal your personal information. These social engineering scams are constantly evolving, and perpetrators use the latest technologies and platforms to trick victims into sharing information.
To stay safe, learn to spot the warning signs of a phishing attack, such as:
- Unsolicited communication from government agencies or large companies
- Phone calls, emails, or text messages requesting personal information
- Messages that don’t come from a company’s official domain (for example: “@apple.com”)
- Strange or obscured links in emails and text messages
- Messages that create a sense of urgency (such as claiming your account has been hacked or that you owe fees or fines)
8. Check to see if your personal information is on the Dark Web
Hackers steal massive amounts of personal information and sell it to scammers on the Dark Web. If you’ve been the victim of a data breach, you could be at risk of deed fraud or other forms of identity theft.
Zoom out: Use a free Dark Web scanner to check if your private information has been leaked.
9. Consider signing up for home title monitoring
Home title monitoring services check public records and alert you about any changes to your home title — for a monthly fee.
Unfortunately, dedicated home title monitoring services can be expensive (like Home Title Lock) and don’t offer protection against identity theft, fraud, or hacking. That’s why an all-in-one solution is a much better option.
With Aura, you get:
- Home and auto title monitoring. Aura monitors both your home and auto title for any changes, and alerts you if someone is trying to alter them.
- Award-winning identity theft protection. Aura also monitors and protects your most sensitive information, including your Social Security number (SSN), driver’s license, passport number, and more.
- Three-bureau credit monitoring with the fastest fraud alerts. A 2022 mystery shopper study found that Aura caught the most changes to credit reports, and delivered fraud alerts up to 250x faster than other services [*].
- A full suite of digital security tools. Every Aura account includes tools to keep your data and devices safe — including antivirus, a military-grade virtual private network (VPN), secure password manager, and more.
- AI-powered tools to block scam calls and texts. Aura can even protect you against scam calls with an AI-powered call assistant and spam text blocker.
- 24/7 Fraud Resolution Specialists. If you need help or become the victim of fraud, you’ll have support from a dedicated U.S.-based team of experts.
- $1 million in identity theft insurance. And if the worst should happen, every Aura member is covered for up to $1,000,000 in eligible losses due to identity theft.
Was Your Home Title Stolen? Here’s What To Do!
If you discover you're the victim of home title theft, you must take action before the criminals drain your equity or target you with further fraud.
Here are the steps you should take:
Notify your identity theft protection or home title insurance provider
Home title theft can be tricky to navigate. You can get more protection and support to recover from this type of fraud with reliable insurance coverage.
Here’s what to do:
- If you have identity theft insurance: Report the fraud to your provider, explaining that you suspect someone has stolen or compromised the deed to your property. The best identity theft protection services offer 24/7 access to a team of specialists who can walk you through the fraud recovery process.
- If you think you might have coverage under your home insurance: Check with your home insurance company to see if they can help.
- If you have neither home insurance nor identity theft protection: Some company benefits include identity theft protection, so it’s worth checking with your employer.
Contact the fraud department at your bank and notify other lenders
Any impacted bank or loan company will need to know about the fraud, especially if crooks attempt to remortgage the stolen property.
When you call, ask to speak to the fraud department and explain that scammers may be using your identity to steal your home’s title and equity. Your lender will freeze your account to prevent further fraudulent activity.
🎯 Related: How To Write a Credit Dispute Letter →
Change your login credentials for online accounts
Over 80% of data breaches in 2022 happened because of poor password practices [*]. When scammers gain access to your accounts, they can seize sensitive data and documents that they could sell on the Dark Web or use for home title theft.
Here’s what to do:
- Change your passwords immediately. Use unique and strong passwords for all of your accounts — especially sensitive ones like your online banking, email, or social media accounts.
- Store your logins in a secure password manager. Aura's password manager encrypts all of your password data and enables one-tap updates to change passwords if there’s a threat to any account.
Place a credit freeze on your report
You can stop scammers from destroying your credit score by blocking their attempts to view your file or open new accounts. A credit freeze remains in place until you “thaw” the account at a later date.
Here’s what to do:
Contact each of the three credit bureaus individually and ask to place a credit freeze on your account. Here’s how to contact them:
File a report with the FTC
An official report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is an essential part of recovering from home title theft and identity fraud. Make sure that you file both an identity theft and a fraud report separately:
- Use IdentityTheft.gov to file an identity theft report
- Use ReportFraud.ftc.gov to report the fraud
The FTC will give you an official report that you can use when disputing charges — as well as a personalized recovery plan.
Report fraud to local law enforcement
Notifying local law enforcement is crucial, as perpetrators may have visited your property before the theft. Witnesses may have seen the fraudster near your home or in the local area.
Here’s what to do:
- Make sure you have all of your evidence. Take your identity documents, FTC report, and any supporting materials to your local police station.
- Visit your local police. Call to set up an appointment with the local police in the area where the crime was committed. For example, if you live in New York, but a fraudster stole the deed for a vacation home in North Carolina, report the fraud to the North Carolina police.
- Follow up. Give the police a few weeks to investigate before calling back. Get a status update and share any new information if you have anything useful.
🎯 Related: How To File a Police Report for Identity Theft →
Alert the county clerk and lenders about the error on your home title
A mistake on your home title could cost you thousands of dollars. If you don't amend any issues, criminals could leave you on the hook for unpaid debts in your name, and you may even face foreclosure.
Here’s what to do:
- Notify the county clerk about the property fraud. You can share your FTC report and police report as evidence.
- Get confirmation letters from lenders. Request that the bank or lender send a signed letter confirming the fraud has been recorded and any illegitimate loans taken out in your name have been canceled.
- Follow up in 30 days. Check in a few weeks later to ensure that the issue has been fully rectified and that you are listed as the home title owner.
Monitor your accounts for fraud
If you don’t take added precautions after home title theft, criminals may target you again with another scam.
Here’s what to do:
- Place alerts on your financial accounts. You can set up security notifications on your bank and credit card accounts so that you will get a text or email about any transactions that surpass a specific limit.
- Review your statements. Every month, review your purchases to look for anything you don't recognize. Contact your bank or credit card issuers for more information if you notice red flags.
- Watch out for suspicious activity. Many thieves first test out small purchases on stolen cards before attempting larger thefts. With a proactive approach, you can spot unauthorized transactions immediately and take action to stop criminals before they empty your accounts.
Consider signing up for identity theft protection
Some identity theft monitoring services offer 24/7 financial fraud protection with advanced features like credit monitoring, home title monitoring, and a one-tap credit lock. Choosing a reliable service can protect your real estate assets and give you greater peace of mind.
Here’s what to do:
- Research options for identity theft protection. To consider the leading services in 2023, read our post on the best identity theft protection companies.
- Think about advanced features. You should get comprehensive coverage that includes credit monitoring, Dark Web monitoring, and fast alerts.
- Make strong customer support a deal-breaker. Home title theft is a stressful situation for victims. Look for a provider with dedicated fraud resolution services, as these experts can help you resolve problems quickly.
🎯 Related: How To Avoid the Financial Hardship Department Scam →
Are Home Title Monitoring Services Worth It?
Stand-alone home title theft monitoring services are often expensive and don't offer much more protection beyond alerts if your home title changes.
Considering the current safeguards that the real estate industry provides, it’s not worth investing in a service that only focuses on home title protection [*].
Instead, you’ll get much more value from an all-in-one identity theft protection provider that shields you — and your entire family — against all forms of identity theft and fraud.
The Bottom Line: Don’t Let Scammers Steal Your Home
Home title theft is a growing type of cybercrime that can be hard to spot. But if you can stop criminals from obtaining your sensitive information, there's a much lower chance that you will fall victim to fraud.
To help prevent identity theft in the first place, consider signing up for Aura’s award-winning, all-in-one digital security solution.