Home Title Theft: How To Protect Yourself

When most people think of home theft, they picture a burglar breaking into a house through a window or door. However, there’s another form of home theft that is on the rise and often goes undetected: title theft.

What Is Home Title Theft?

Home title theft is a type of real estate fraud where someone uses a homeowner’s personal information to forge a deed and steal their home. The thief may apply for a home equity loan or line of credit in the homeowner’s name and then fail to make payments—exposing the owner to foreclosure and credit damage.

In the case of unoccupied homes, like secondary residences, the fraudster might sell the house without the owner’s knowledge or rent out the property without permission.

How Does Home Title Theft Happen?

Criminals commit home title theft in a few different ways, but the most common avenues are phishing schemes, malware, data breaches, unsecured Wi-Fi networks and mail theft. Theft can also occur if a homeowner loses sensitive documents like their deed or a mortgage statement. Here’s how home title theft typically happens:

Phishing

Phishing occurs when a criminal pretends to be a legitimate company or individual to get a homeowner’s personal information. They may do this by sending an email or letter that looks like it’s from a bank or government agency or by calling the homeowner and pretending to be someone they’re not.

Malware

Malware is a kind of software that criminals can use to access a homeowner’s personal information. They may install it on the homeowner’s computer without their knowledge or trick them into downloading it by posing as a legitimate website or program.

Data Breaches

Data breaches occur when criminals access a company’s or organization’s personal information database. Once they have the information, they may sell it on the black market or use it themselves to commit home title fraud.

Unsecured Wi-Fi Networks

If a homeowner has an unsecured Wi-Fi network, criminals may be able to access their personal information if they’re close enough to the router. They can then use this information to commit fraud or steal the homeowner’s identity. Likewise, homeowners who access the Internet using unsecured public Wi-Fi are at higher risk for home title theft.

Mail Theft

Home title theft can also occur through mail theft when thieves steal mail from a homeowner’s mailbox to obtain their personal information. Once they have personal information like birth dates and Social Security numbers, they can use it to commit fraud. Homeowners can combat this by regularly checking their mailboxes and shredding mail that includes sensitive information.

Loss

Losing important documents and allowing personal information to fall into the wrong hands can lead to home title theft. If a deed or mortgage statement falls into the wrong hands, criminals can use the information to perpetrate home title theft.

What Happens If a Property Title Is Stolen?

If a property title is stolen, it may result in the homeowner losing their home through unauthorized sale or foreclosure. There are still risks even if the homeowner discovers the theft before the house is sold or enters foreclosure. The theft can result in legal issues, damage the homeowner’s credit profile and damage to the property itself.

If you think you may be a victim of home title theft, there are several steps you can take to recover and protect your credit and financial future.

  1. Contact the three main credit bureaus. Contact the three major credit reporting agencies and request that a fraud alert is placed on your credit file. This will make it more difficult for someone to open new accounts in your name. If there are any unauthorized accounts in your report, dispute them with each relevant bureau.
  2. File a report with the police. Contact the police and credit reporting agencies immediately. This will help you start the recovery process and protect yourself from further damage. The police can also help you create a paper trail that will be helpful if you need to take legal action.
  3. Close unauthorized accounts. If you discover a thief has opened new accounts using your home title, contact the lenders to notify them of the fraud and have the accounts closed. This includes, but is not limited to, your mortgage lender and title insurance company. Also determine whether fraudsters opened any credit cards or personal loans in your name.
  4. Contact your mortgage lender. Even if the fraudster has not applied for a home equity loan or line of credit, contact your mortgage lender and alert them to the situation. Doing so can prevent future financial harm and foreclosure.
  5. Retain related records. Keep track of all correspondence and documents related to the theft. This will be helpful if you need to file a lawsuit or take other legal action.

Should You Be Worried About Your Own Title?

In general, home theft is not as common as other types of identity theft and internet-enabled crimes. Whether you should worry about your home title depends on a few factors, including how careful you are with your personal information and how tech-savvy you are.

Homeowners with a substantial amount of home equity are also more likely to be targeted for home title theft, as are those who own more than one home. This is especially true for vacation homes, investment properties and other unoccupied real estate.

Seniors are most susceptible to home title theft and other forms of identity theft. However, homeowners who fail to monitor their financial records and credit reports are at risk, as are homeowners who do not carefully handle sensitive mail.

Luckily, there are a few signs you can watch out for that may indicate your home is the target of title theft. These include:

  • Receiving bills or collection notices for accounts you didn’t open
  • Being denied credit because of information on your credit report you don’t recognize
  • Receiving a notice from the IRS that you have unpaid taxes
  • Getting calls from debt collectors for debts you don’t owe
  • Discovering your home has been rented out or sold

This type of crime can be devastating, but there are steps homeowners can take to protect their personal information and their home.

How to Protect Yourself From Title Fraud

There are several things you can do to protect yourself from home title theft:

  • Keep track of your mail. If you suddenly stop receiving bills or other important mail, it could signal that someone has changed your address without your knowledge. Also, keep tabs on your important documents, such as your deed and mortgage statement, and ensure they are stored safely.
  • Monitor your credit report. You’re entitled to a free credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year. Regularly reviewing your credit report can help you catch suspicious activity, such as new accounts opened in your name and unauthorized changes to your existing accounts.
  • Be careful with your personal information. Shred unwanted documents that contain your personal information, such as bills and bank statements. Do not carry your Social Security card or birth certificate with you, and do not give out personal information over the phone or online unless you are sure you know who you are dealing with.
  • Keep an eye on your property. If you see strangers coming and going from your home or suspicious activity around your neighborhood, report it to the police. Installing a security system can also protect unoccupied properties and deter thieves from stealing documents such as your deed or mortgage statement.
  • Get owner’s title insurance. If you didn’t opt-in to an owner’s title insurance policy at closing, purchase coverage now. This policy can protect you if any liens or claims are filed against the property while you are the owner. Title protection services may be helpful in the absence of title insurance, but these services are often rife with fraud.

More From Advisor

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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