Can Criminals Really Steal Your Home?
Homeowner Alois Philips had no reason to suspect that her house was in danger of being stolen. But when she tried to sell it, she discovered that it didn’t belong to her anymore [*].
Philips was one of three victims of deed fraud committed by the same man in Los Angeles County.
While some people claim the risk of home title theft is overblown by insurance providers, research and reports tell a different story.
In 2020, a research study in The Journal of World Economic Research predicted that [*]: As much as $1 billion will be lost to deed fraud worldwide each year.
In this guide, we’ll explain the reality of home title theft in today’s world, how to tell if you’re a victim, and what you can do to protect yourself and your home from scammers.
What Is Home Title Theft? Is It Real?
Home title theft occurs when someone forges the deed to your property so that the title is no longer listed under your name. This kind of theft usually coincides with identity fraud.
Con artists often use a falsified or stolen identity to hide their involvement in the theft. Then, they create a fake document that transfers ownership of the property to their own name instead of the name of the true owner.
In some cases, they may even work with a dishonest notary to fool the title company and make the scam look as legitimate as possible.
But how do cybercriminals get your personal information in the first place? Here are a few ways scammers target their victims:
- Data breaches: Scammers buy and sell personal information leaked to the Dark Web after a data breach. In 2022, there were 1,862 publicly reported data breaches — the highest number ever for a single year [*].
- Phishing scams: Fraudsters use fake emails, text messages, and phone calls to trick you into giving up sensitive information. These messages often include malicious links that send you to fake websites that steal your data or infect your device with viruses.
- Impersonation scams: Many scammers will pretend to be authoritative individuals in order to get you to give up your sensitive information — such as law enforcement, representatives from your mortgage company, or government officials.
- Mail theft: If someone steals your mail and it includes your sensitive information — even your name and address — they could use it to steal your identity.
- Hacking: Unsecured wi-fi networks can provide hackers with easy access to any sensitive data on your devices.
- Malware: If hackers are able to infect your device with malware, it can give them remote access to your devices or allow them to spy on you as you enter sensitive information online.
Because criminals accomplish home title theft by forging and filing documents behind the scenes, they leave homeowners totally unaware that their property is being stolen.
Scammers then file the forged deed with the county recorder’s office to complete the title transfer process.
There are a number of financial motivations that lead criminals to commit home title fraud.
What Happens If Someone Steals Your Home Title?
Here’s what someone can do if they steal your home title:
- Illegally rent out your property and pocket the income.
- Sell your home to a partner in crime (or an innocent, unsuspecting buyer) and keep the proceeds.
- Take out multiple fraudulent mortgages, leaving you to foot the bill (i.e., mortgage fraud).
- Use your stolen identity to take out a Home Equity Line of Credit (also known as a HELOC) or commit other types of cybercrime.
- Take out a reverse mortgage on your home and steal your equity.
Fraudsters want their efforts to be as lucrative as possible, so they usually target homes that have substantial equity.
Unoccupied homes are also attractive to home title thieves, who can more easily get away with renting out, mortgaging, or selling these properties before homeowners pick up on it.
How Common Is Home Title Theft?
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge the severity of deed fraud in comparison to other kinds of fraud.
“House stealing” is harder to identify on your own and may go unnoticed for years. Yet, the average home has a much higher value than stolen credit card numbers or a hacked social media account, for example.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reported a total of 11,727 victims of real estate and rental fraud in 2022 [*]. Altogether, these victims suffered losses amounting to $350 million — making it the fifth most costly crime in America.
Home title theft falls under the umbrella of real estate fraud — and it’s clear from these statistics that this kind of theft is very real and very costly.
Here’s the big takeaway: When home title theft strikes, it strikes hard. While your risk of becoming a victim may be lower than other types of identity theft, losing your home has devastating consequences.
Who’s Most at Risk of Home Title Theft?
Some property owners are much more likely to fall victim to deed theft. There are three groups that have the biggest risk factors:
- Seniors are likely targets, especially those that don’t have a mortgage on their property. Sometimes scammers take advantage of seniors by pretending to help them refinance their homes, while actually using their information to steal their home title (and home) out from under them.
- People with second homes, including vacation homes, rentals, or investment properties. Vacant properties are not always monitored as closely as permanent residences. This leaves more breathing room for fraudsters to get away with the crime while the property owner’s attention is elsewhere.
- Identity theft victims. Any homeowner who’s had their identity or personal information stolen might also lose their home to the fraudster. In fact, unauthorized changes to a person’s property title or equity is a sign of identity theft.
Unfortunately, home title fraud often goes unnoticed until homeowners either find out that they’ve missed mortgage payments, check in with their local county records office, or discover that their home is no longer listed in their name (such as when paying property taxes).
Do You Need To Pay for Home Title Monitoring?
Here’s the truth:
Paying for a home title monitoring service or title protection service is completely optional. You can always check your home title yourself at any time via your local county recorder.
That said, how often are you really going to check on the status of your home title?
Home title monitoring services automatically oversee the status of your property title without any effort on your part. This also includes notification services that alert you to any changes made to your home title, equity, mortgage, etc.
But here’s a better option:
Choose an all-in-one digital security solution that includes home title monitoring.
Home title theft is a form of identity theft. Thieves need your sensitive information to pull off the crime. Proactively protecting yourself from identity theft is the best way to protect your home — and all of your assets — from scammers.
For example, with Aura you get:
- Home title and address monitoring. Aura constantly monitors changes to your home title and address, and alerts you if fraudsters try to change either.
- Award-winning identity theft protection. Aura also alerts you if anyone is trying to use your personal information — including your name, Social Security number (SSN), etc. — to open new accounts, take out loans, or commit other identity fraud crimes.
- Credit monitoring (bank, credit, and investment accounts). Get alerted to suspicious activity on your bank, credit, and investment accounts. Aura’s fraud alerts are the fastest and most reliable in the industry,3 giving you a head start in shutting down scammers.
- One-click credit lock. Lock your Experian credit file with a single tap by using Aura’s mobile app. This can stop scammers from opening new accounts or taking out loans in your name.
- Proactive device and network security. Aura includes AI-powered digital security for your home devices and online accounts to protect you from hackers. This includes, antivirus software for all your devices, a virtual private network (VPN), secure password manager, anti-track, email aliases, and more.
- 24/7 access to U.S.-based fraud resolution specialists. If you need help, Aura’s team is always available via phone or email.
- $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft. And if the worst should happen, every adult member on an Aura plan is covered with insurance.
Keeping your personally identifiable information (PII) out of the reach of criminals is the number one priority — whether you’re worried about deed fraud or identity theft. Try Aura free for 14 days to keep your home, identity, and finances safe from fraudsters.
🎯 Related: The 5 Best Home Title Protection Services in 2023 →
Home Title Insurance vs. Title Monitoring: What’s the Difference?
Often, when people talk about protecting their deed or home title, they confuse home title insurance with home title monitoring.
Title insurance is a common prerequisite to a real estate purchase, but it’s not the same as title monitoring services.
Here’s the difference: Home title insurance protects against fraud that happened in the past, while home title monitoring protects you against fraud that could happen in the future.
Title insurance protects the mortgage lender and the buyer from financial responsibility should any conflict arise over the property’s title after the sale has closed.
If any issues surface that challenge your legal ownership of the property, such as undiscovered liens or lawsuits, title insurance covers the cost of resolving those claims. It typically does not cover any title fraud that could happen once you’ve purchased the property. For the buyer, title insurance coverage is a one-time fee.
Title monitoring, on the other hand, is an ongoing protection service (often subscription-based) that tracks all activity related to your property title and reports back through notifications.
Title monitoring services are often bundled with other digital tracking and notification features for a wider layer of personal security.
How To Tell If You’re a Victim of Home Title Theft
Unfortunately, victims of property fraud usually don’t realize what’s happening until the fraudster has done significant damage. Here are a few warning signs of home title theft to look out for:
You receive letters about a mortgage policy you never applied for
A fraudster’s primary aim in stealing your title is to make off with as much money as possible before getting caught. One way to get some fast cash is to take out a mortgage on the property.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of ignoring or quickly glancing over mundane emails and snail mail — such as monthly bank statements or updates from your insurance company. But this is exactly how serious breaches like home title theft slip through the cracks.
It’s important to inspect any and all mail that you receive about your property, especially from new banks or lenders that you don’t recognize. If you discover activity that you didn’t initiate, investigate further.
You get an alert from your home title monitoring service
Home title monitoring services will notify you if any information on your home title is altered or changed. Here’s what a home title monitoring alert from Aura might look like:
Most people never update title information as long as they’re owners of a property, so take any alert seriously. If you don’t recognize the activity described in the alert, it’s a sure warning sign that someone could be illegally making a move on your property title.
Strange accounts appear on your credit report
For homeowners, markers of identity fraud also point to the possibility of deed fraud.
Since thieves often target your credit first, new accounts or suspicious activity on your credit report can be a warning sign. Everyone is entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the three main credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Check your credit report for signs of fraud, including:
- New accounts you didn’t open.
- Loans you didn’t take out.
- Different or wrong information (such as your address or phone number).
- Hard inquiries that you didn’t request or authorize.
- A sudden dip in your credit score.
🎯 Related: 7 Best Credit Monitoring Apps (With Recommendations) →
You see signs of life at a supposedly vacant property
If you own an investment property or vacation home, you might not pay as much attention to it as the property where you live day to day. But the longer a home title crime goes unnoticed, the more the criminal can benefit.
Fraudsters favor unoccupied properties for this very reason. They hope owners won’t think to check on these properties often enough. If you do get wind of any signs of activity on your vacant property, this could mean that a criminal has stolen your home title (and potentially sold the property to a third party).
You stop receiving bills at your residence
Con artists have ways of diverting your attention even further away from the property that you own. One such strategy involves changing the mailing address for your property’s bills. This means important mail falls into the criminal’s hands instead of your own.
Not only does this delay your discovery of fraudulent loans, charges, and new accounts — it also lessens your chances of noticing signs of life on vacant properties.
As soon as you realize that bills or important documents are no longer being delivered to your address, call your providers and check on your property records.
You get a notice of foreclosure on your property
A foreclosure notification out of the blue is certainly a cause for concern. It’s especially suspicious if you don’t have a mortgage on your property in the first place.
Of course, this is yet another signifier that your home title has been stolen or compromised. Fraudsters generally take out mortgages, borrow against your home’s equity, pocket the cash, and let the bills go unpaid. This behavior eventually leads to foreclosure.
Sometimes, smaller bills will go unpaid before a mortgage defaults to foreclosure. Notices of unpaid utility bills, tax bills, or mortgage payments can indicate trouble.
Did Someone Forge or Steal Your Home Title? Do This
If you find yourself a victim of home title theft, you may have a long road to financial recovery. But for the time being, here are the most important first steps to take:
- Call your home title monitoring or identity theft insurance provider. They’ll be able to walk you through the next steps and can even facilitate three-way calls between you and your bank, lender, or home insurance company.
- File an official complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov. An official FTC report is necessary for proving you’re the victim of identity theft.
- Contact your mortgage lender and other impacted financial institutions. Let them know what’s happened, and share your FTC report with them.
- Notify the county clerk that property fraud has occurred. Again, share your report and follow up with them to ensure that they’ve fixed any errors.
- Freeze your credit (and check your credit report for fraudulent accounts or loans).
- Report the fraud to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and file an identity theft report with your local law enforcement.
- Change your passwords and set up a password manager to help create complex, unique, and secure passwords.
The Bottom Line: Home Title Theft Is Part of a Bigger Problem
Home ownership comes with a huge amount of responsibility — but ensuring your home is safe from home title theft shouldn’t have to be one of them. Unfortunately, as crippling as home title theft is on its own, it’s just one symptom of the more serious danger of identity theft.
But here’s the good news: when you take steps to protect your identity, you’re also securing assets including your home.
A robust cybersecurity solution like Aura’s goes further than you might think. It doesn’t just shield you from one kind of fraud — it monitors all financial transactions, accounts, and personal records in your name so that no unauthorized access goes unnoticed.