The Cook County Recorder of Deeds’ Property Fraud Unit is used to receiving reports of recording fraud, but up until two weeks ago, it had never received a call reporting an attempted home theft in progress. The elderly woman on the line said a man was downstairs changing her locks, and showed her a document stamped by the Recorder’s Office that claimed he now owned her home.
After quickly reviewing her chain of title and seeing a potentially fraudulent document, Fraud Unit staff immediately called the Chicago Police. The officers responding were unclear on what was happening, mainly because the criminal did not flee, and instead presented his false document and reasserted his claim. It appears that the alleged criminal, who was arrested a week later, was filing fraudulent claims of “adverse possession” with the Recorder’s Office in an attempt to illegally take ownership of vacant homes.
Thinking that the elderly woman’s home was empty was the mistake that ultimately led to his arrest.
The police were able to prevent the criminal from forcing the woman out of her home, and after working with the FBI and the Cook County Recorder’s Fraud Unit to assemble evidence, arrested the man on August 6th.
In recent years, instances of recording fraud where a criminal files a forged transfer of deed have become more common. Most people are surprised to learn how easy it is to take ownership of another’s home, simply by filing a fraudulent document with a County Recorder. Once that document is recorded, only a judge can rule the fraudulent claim inapplicable.
Thanks to a new law authored by Cook County Recorder Karen A. Yarbrough, those who are victims of fraudulent filings recorded after July 19, 2013, will be able to utilize an expedited review by an administrative law judge to have the document declared fraudulent, rather than face a costly and time-consuming process in the county’s chancery courts.
Though many of the fraudsters engaging in this crime are so-called “sovereign citizens,” and intentionally cloud others’ titles to make political statements, some are content to carefully and quietly select their victims, with a preference for elderly persons who have paid off their mortgages. When the victim passes away or leaves the home for an extended period of time, their families may discover after it’s too late that the fraudster has sold the home or taken out a mortgage.
Recorder Karen Yarbrough is warning homeowners that it is too easy for fraudsters to cloud their title, and because County Recorders are not authorized by law to review the legal claims made in documents before recording them, every homeowner in Cook County is vulnerable to this crime.
“I like to tell people that it’s easier to steal a house than it is to steal a car,” said Yarbrough. “To steal a car, you have make sure nobody is around, pry open a door or break a window, and if there is no alarm, find a way to get it started, which isn’t easy with anti-theft technology today. To steal a house, a thief only needs some public information found easily online, ten minutes Photoshopping a fake deed, and a trip to one of our offices to record their false ownership.”
Though it is easy to lay false claim to property in Cook County, it is also easy for homeowners to protect their assets. The CCRD Free Property Fraud Alert constantly scans public recordings, and sends a phone or email alert to those who have registered, whenever a document is recorded against a Property Index Number (PIN). Registering is easy and free, and will allow victims of fraud to be notified immediately, before the criminal can use their fraudulent interest to do even more damage.
To sign up for the Free Property Fraud Alert, visit CookRecorder.com or call 800-728-3858.