Don’t let anyone steal your house | Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC

Erika Morini, an Austrian-Jewish violinist born in 1904, was one of the greatest female violinists of all time. A pupil of Oscar Sevcik (best known for his tortuous violin notebooks), Morini made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 17. In 1945, she was the first violinist – and the first woman – to produce a commercial recording as a soloist. with an orchestra.

In 1924, Morini’s father paid $10,000 to buy him the Davidoff Stradivarius violin. This instrument quickly became his favorite performance instrument for the rest of his life. When she died at 91, she was cradling her Strad in her arms.

Morini didn’t know that the violin she was rocking was a replica of her Strad. His prized violin, then worth around $4 million, had been stolen from his apartment shortly before his death. Since there were no signs of a break-in, law enforcement concluded that the theft must have been planned by someone close to Morini.

This violin, now called Davidoff-Morini Strad, has not yet been found. To date, the FBI website describes the theft as an unsolved case.

Indirectly, Morini may have helped the thieves. Rather than securing her precious instrument in a vault or bank vault, Morini wanted to keep it close to her. Thus, he remained in a cupboard with a lock that could be opened with a master key, and the location of the instrument was well known to those around him. Since few people had access to Morini’s apartment, someone she knew was likely involved in the theft.

Like Morini, no homeowner would intentionally help a thief steal their home. However, that’s what happened to a couple from Ohio recently. This article explains how thieves can steal title to real estate and what landlords can do to protect themselves.

How the home theft scam works

These facts are based on a report from NBC4.com. I added to the script to fill in the gaps.

A couple, whom I will call the Smiths, received a letter purportedly from the county treasurer’s office. The letter informed the Smiths that there was a problem with their property tax payments and problems with their deeds. The Smiths were worried – they didn’t want to lose their home due to property tax issues.

At some point, the Smiths received a letter, also supposedly from the county treasurer, which included revised deeds and other documents to be signed and notarized. They were assured that all issues would be resolved once the documents were signed. The Smiths signed and returned the documents, breathing a sigh of relief.

Their relief was short-lived. A few weeks later, a man (I’ll call him Sam) knocked on the Smith’s front door. He informed them that he was the new owner of their house and that they had to move. The Smiths closed the door and called the police, and Sam left before they arrived.

An investigation revealed that the documents signed by the Smiths were a deed and other documents transferring title to their home to Sam’s business. Sam had registered these documents and transferred title to the real estate to his company. So, technically, Sam owned the Smith house.

Eventually, the Smiths reclaimed the title on their behalf. Sam was arrested, convicted of fraud and is in jail.

Other versions of the home theft scam

Smith’s situation was the first I had heard of this version of this scam. The most common scams involve a supposed mortgage refinance. Similar to the same thing I talked about in Protect Yourself from Mortgage Refinance Fraud, this version of the scam preys on people who are behind on their mortgage payments.

These homeowners, who are in desperate need of mortgage relief, quickly believe it when a so-called debt relief company contacts them to offer them a low-cost mortgage refinance. However, included in the paperwork for the supposed new mortgage is a deed by which the owner signs the title to the house.

In another version of the scam, the debt relief company informs homeowners that their program requires them to surrender title to their home. In this version of the scam, the debt relief company promises to pay the mortgage payments and allow the owners to continue living in the house.

In reality, the mortgage is not repaid, the house is seized and the owners have to move. Any equity the owners have accumulated in the house goes to the fraudulent debt relief company upon foreclosure since they now own the house.

A final variant of the house theft scheme does not involve the “cooperation” of the owner. Instead, a scammer forges a title transfer deed to himself. While this scam may seem easier to solve, it can still create a lot of headaches for landlords as they struggle to prove they didn’t sign a deed and get government records corrected.

Protect yourself from home theft scams

Home theft scams cannot operate without the cooperation of the homeowner by handing over the home to the crooks (albeit unwittingly or under fraudulent circumstances). Therefore, homeowners are the first line of defense in preventing home theft.

Landlords should consider the following before signing legal documents:

Verify source

The Smiths could have protected themselves by calling the county treasurer when they received the letter regarding the property taxes. As a reminder, owners should not call the phone number listed on the letter they receive. Instead, they should go to the government website (using a search engine – not the URL in the letter) and call that number to verify the letter is genuine.

Additionally, property tax amounts and title deeds are usually in public records, and many are online. Sometimes the payment status is also a public document. A homeowner may be able to check the status of their payments online. Owners who are unsure how to verify this information should consult an attorney for assistance.

Beware of unsolicited emails, phone calls or postings

The mortgage refinance variant of the house theft scam often begins with an unsolicited email, phone call, or targeted postal ad. Fraudsters can send letters to people whose homes are foreclosed – assuming they will be desperate.

Also, robocalls and spam emails are inexpensive to send. Scammers send out thousands, if not millions, of these calls and emails, hoping to find someone in desperate need of mortgage relief. I get at least one suspicious phone call and email a week – and I’ve seen many more such emails in my spam filter.

Don’t sign a deed

Acts will usually have the word “act” somewhere in their title. Some states call their mortgages “deeds of trust” or “deeds of debt security, which can be confusing. But words like “deed of special warranty,” “deed of waiver,” or “deed of limited warranty” are affixed to the documents that convey title.

Don’t Just Sign Signature Pages

In commercial real estate transactions where the mortgage documents are complicated, it is not uncommon for the parties to escrow signature pages and allow them to be attached to the final documents. This practice is not common in residential mortgage transactions.

Beware of separate signature pages

It is common for signatures on loan documents to be on separate pages from the documents. However, often the document name (e.g. mortgage) will be in a footer. If the signature page does not specify the document, the page can be attached to another document, such as a deed. The way to prevent this type of fraud is for owners to know who they are dealing with before signing the documents.

Pay special attention to notarized or attested documents

Deeds must be notarized. In some states, they must also have witnesses. It is easier for a scammer to steal a house if he uses the real notarized signatures of the owners.

Of course, a scammer might not add fake notary acknowledgment or fake witnesses – or even fake signatures. But owners should be careful where their notarized signatures go.

If in doubt, contact a lawyer

Many landlords do not use lawyers for refinances or simple residential transactions. It’s understandable. Lawyers can seem expensive for what looks like a routine transaction.

However, for many people, their home is their biggest asset and their mortgage is their biggest debt. If a landlord is the victim of fraud, it can cost a lot more to resolve this problem than if the landlord had paid a qualified lawyer upfront.

Conclusion

Erika Morini never learned that by refusing to improve the security of her Strad, someone around her betrayed her by stealing it. But homeowners who fall victim to house theft schemes are usually made aware of the fraud and experience the stress, emotional burden, hassle and expense of settling their title. Some may still lose their home to foreclosure if they believe the fraudster was making mortgage payments.

Homeowners who are vigilant, wary of unexpected communications, and cautious about what they sign can usually avoid falling victim to home theft scams. Unfortunately, there are plenty of owners who, like the Smiths, won’t be so careful and become victims.

This series draws on Elizabeth Whitman’s experience and passion for classical music to illustrate creative solutions to legal challenges faced by businesses and real estate investors.

Comments are closed.