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The Voices of Land blog

Get insight on current land trends and issues from experts across the land real estate industry.

21May

6 Ways to Combat Property Title Fraud

Kat Szymanski | 21 May, 2024 | Fraud | 0 Comments | Return|

Image by Gabrielle Henderson from Unsplash

Property titles can provide detailed information about your land's boundaries, structures, easements, previous owners, and other details. Perhaps most importantly, people rely on this collection of documents to prove property ownership and entitlements.

Unfortunately, documents intended to prove property ownership can be manipulated if they get into the wrong hands. Imaging software and highly accurate printers create opportunities for criminals to commit various types of real estate fraud. Additionally, criminals who gain access to online records could manipulate data to mislead lenders and real estate investors.

It's difficult to know precisely how often title fraud happens, but the FBI's 2023 Internet Crime Report shows that Americans complained about 9,521 instances of real estate and rental fraud involving cybercrime.

If someone successfully commits real estate fraud, they could:

  • Take out a line of credit against your land and other real estate
  • Refinance existing loans to cash out the equity
  • Sell the property to a legitimate, unsuspecting buyer
  • Rent the property illegally

How can you protect yourself from title fraud? The following safeguards can significantly lower the risk of becoming a criminal's target.

Monitor Title Activity Regularly

Contact your county record of deeds, clerk's office, and similar government agencies to monitor any activity associated with your title documents. Many county offices have online portals that make it easy to check information without visiting in person.

Some counties have systems that automatically alert you to activity. If your county offers that service, take advantage of it.

Regardless of your approach, monitor title activity at least once per year. If you can do it more often, that's even better.

Secure Personal Information and Documents

Real estate fraud becomes much easier when the criminal has a copy of your deed, a critical document in property titles. It only takes a small amount of effort to create a digital version of the document, replace your name with theirs, and print a high-quality copy that "proves" ownership.

Knowing some of your personal information, such as Social Security and account numbers, makes the fraud even easier because the criminal can answer security questions.

Keep all your important documents in a secure location to prevent this. You might choose to keep the papers in a bank's safe deposit box. Safe deposit box prices can vary significantly by area, size, and other factors. Expect to pay somewhere between $15 and $350 per year.

If you have physical property title documents, secure them in a home safe. When choosing a safe, look for models that offer:

  • Water and fire resistance
  • A TL-15 resistance rating (these safes can withstand common tools like drills for at least 15 minutes)
  • A heavy weight that makes it difficult for someone to carry

Encrypt Electronic Communications

Since much of today's communication is digital, you should encrypt sensitive information to protect it from cybercriminals.

There are several types of encryption to consider. If you need to upload documents to government or financial institution websites, make sure the site's address starts with "https." The "s" means the website encrypts information for improved security.

You should also encrypt emails and text messages. Most email and text services encrypt messages as they travel from your device to the recipient's. When the messages reach their intended destination, they're automatically decrypted.

If you want more protection, use end-to-end encryption that only the intended recipient can read. This approach gives you more security, but it requires some extra steps. Before you send the message, you will need to use a personal key to encrypt it. The recipient will also need the correct key to read your message. A variety of end-to-end encryption email providers and add-on technologies are on the market.

Verify the Identity of Parties in a Transaction

Always verify the identities of all people involved in your real estate and financial transactions. For example, let's say you decide to sell a few acres of land. Before initiating any transactions with potential buyers, ask to see IDs and other documents to verify their identities.

Some documents you might ask for include:

  • State ID cards and driver's licenses
  • Passports
  • Mail, such as utility bills, showing the person's name and address

You'll want to verify identities because transactions can give other people a glimpse into your private property ownership. Knowing everyone involved in the deal lowers the risk that someone would use that information to commit fraud. If they do defraud you, you'll have information that helps law enforcement find and prosecute them.

Report Suspicious Activities to Authorities

Have you noticed suspicious activity related to your property? Signs that someone is attempting to commit real estate fraud include receiving bills from companies you don't do business with and getting phone calls from businesses asking about unfamiliar accounts.

If you suspect something's amiss, contact the authorities so they can investigate. Your state might have a real estate commission. You can also contact the FBI with your concerns by dialing 202-324-3000 or visiting the agency's website.

Work With a Land Consultant

You should start protecting your investment before you even own land. Working with an Accredited Land Consultant will help you find a property that matches your interests. You'll also enjoy the support of someone who understands every step of the buying and selling processes. If something seems even a little odd, your consultant will know how to address the issue.

Find a land consultant in your area to protect your investment from the very first step.

 

Explore Other Real Estate Fraud Resources from RLI

  • Learn real-world prevention tactics from a Accredited Land Consultant, Kevin Tolbert, on the Voices of Land Podcast
  • View presentation slides in the National Land Conference app from the breakout session on Real Estate Wire Fraud
  • Learn about wire fraud on the Voices of Land blog

About the Author

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