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Could a Criminal Use Deed Fraud to Steal Your Entire Home?

Yes, deed theft cases are growing and can result in the loss of your home​


spinner image suburban neighborhood with an empty outline where a house should be and a sad couple standing in front of it who lost their home
LEHEL KOVÁCS

Stealing a wallet, a cellphone, a car — these are threats we all understand. A thief grabs and flees. But in a rising form of fraud known as deed theft, criminals have found a way to steal no less than your home and land.

Though it is still a relatively uncommon scam, deed-theft cases are popping up across the country. There are two typical variations:

  • In the first type, thieves forge a deed that transfers ownership of a property to them. They file the deed with a county clerk, who records the sale. Then the property is quickly sold to an unsuspecting purchaser.
  • In the second type, crooks deceive a homeowner, convincing them to sign a deed to transfer ownership, often by promising help refinancing a mortgage or paying overdue property taxes.
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Shirley Gibson, 88, is among those who have been targeted. She owns an empty plot of land in a historically African American section of Miami. In 2021, Gibson went to pay her taxes and learned they had already been paid — by a stranger. Property records showed she had sold the land for $230,000. Scammers had forged her signature, created a fake deed and taken her land. Gibson immediately hired an attorney and filed a complaint with law enforcement.

“I guess they thought because I’m old and an African American they would be able to pull that off,” Gibson says. They were wrong. Two men and a woman were arrested and face criminal charges related to the scam. Still, Gibson had to go through a complicated civil court process to get her property back. And anxiety lingers. “You have to be very vigilant,” she says. “They might try it again.”

Other recent deed-fraud cases include:

  • In Washington, D.C., Robert McCloud used fake driver’s licenses to pose as two older homeowners who had paid off mortgages. In both cases, McCloud assumed the owners’ identities and transferred the deeds of their homes so he could sell them. His scam netted more than $580,000 before he was caught and sent to prison for 18 months.
  • In another Miami case, prosecutors say Tom Roy Jenkins used a fake driver’s license and drew up fake documents to pose as the son of a woman in a nursing home, illegally transferring her house to him, then trying to sell it. Jenkins has pleaded not guilty to felony charges.
  • In New York City alone, there have been more than 3,400 recorded complaints of deed theft since 2014, according to the state’s attorney general.

"Older people are often at risk to be targeted,” says Jay Inwald, director of economic justice litigation at Legal Services NYC, which helps deed-scam victims. That’s because they more often own their homes outright.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Those who buy a property from a deed-theft scammer often become victims as well. Greg Bugaj bought a parcel of land in Fairfield, Connecticut, from a man who claimed to be the owner. Bugaj and his partner started work on a 4,000-square-foot home they planned to sell. But it turned out the real property owner was a Long Island doctor who only found out about the fraud when told someone was building a house on his land.

The case is tied up in court. Bugaj said through his lawyer that he “may never fully recoup the hundreds of thousands of dollars” he paid out of pocket on the project.

Maureen Kokeas, in the New York City Sheriff’s Office, says many can’t afford a civil lawsuit, which is often needed to regain property ownership. “Unfortunately, getting your property back often comes down to dollars and cents,” Kokeas says.

Have questions related to scams? Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline toll-free at 877-908-3360. For the latest fraud news and advice, go to aarp.org/fraudwatch.

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Property Deeds: 4 Things to Know

  1. What it is: A property deed is a document that transfers ownership from one person to another. Typically, your home deed is held by a local government land records office.
  2. Whose name is on it? If you own the home outright, it will be yours (and perhaps your spouse’s). If you have a mortgage, it varies by state: In some, your name is still on the deed, but the bank has a lien on the property. In other states, the bank holds the deed until the loan is paid off.
  3. How to protect it: It takes your signature to finalize the transfer of a property. Never sign a real estate document under pressure. Take documents to a reputable lawyer to be clear what you are signing.
  4. What else to watch for: Never disregard mail, especially tax and other home-related documents, sent to another name at your address. That could suggest someone has illegally transferred your deed to their name.

Source: Jay Inwald, of Legal Services NYC

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.