As attorneys, we often receive urgent phone calls that require immediate action. One recent call regarding property fraud did just that.
Our client owned vacant property that he had not visited for a while. When he stopped by the house, a “for sale” sign had been placed in the yard and a lockbox hung over the handle of the front door. He called us shortly after his discovery, confused, furious and in a state of alarm. We contacted the recorder’s office in his county and confirmed what we had hoped would not be the case. A forged deed with our client’s signature had been recorded, and the property had been transferred to a new owner, all without our client’s knowledge. The “new owner” had posted the property for sale, had a deal in the works to sell the real estate, and planned on walking away with the proceeds. Needless to say, it took weeks to undo the mess. If that deal had gone through to an innocent third-party purchaser, our client would have found himself with a much larger and legally complex issue.
Unfortunately, property fraud is happening at a steadily increasing rate, posting a 22.6% gain in the second quarter of 2022 over the same period in 2021. After we were able to get our client restored as the legal owner, we received calls from two different attorneys within months asking for our assistance. Incredibly, the same fraudulent “new owner” had victimized their respective clients as well.
We do not want property fraud to happen to you! So, we put together some steps you can take to protect yourself against this threat:
- If you have vacant property, plan on viewing the real estate frequently for signs or lockboxes. Make sure that the mail does not pile up in the mailbox and that the property does not show signs of neglect that perpetrators often look to for targeting.
- If you are leaving your property for a second home or extended vacation or know of a deceased family member’s property sitting vacant, have a neighbor or friend check on the home once a week. Better yet, have someone house sit while you are away, taking in mail and newspapers and keeping the lawn mown, all of which when not done advertise the absence of the owner.
- Check the accuracy of the official records in your county. This review can often be completed by checking your current property tax bill for your correct name and address with the County Treasurer or the county’s property record card held by the County Assessor, both available online in most counties.
- Many counties across Indiana have responded to the increase in property fraud by creating owner alerts that notify you when any document is recorded in your name. Each county’s procedure is different, but are some resources for how to sign up for these alerts by county:
Marion: visit www.indy.gov/activity/property-fraud-alerts
Johnson County: visit www.propertyfraudalert.com/INJohnson.
Hendricks, Hamilton, Hancock, Morgan, Shelby and Franklin: visit www.doxpop.com.
Boone: None at this time, call your County Recorder to request the program!
Madison: visit propertyfraudalert.com/INMadison
If you receive a fraud alert, we advise that you first call the police to file a report. Then call us. We will move quickly to notify other governmental authorities to ensure the protection of your property rights. We also suggest you call any other people whose name appears on the deed so that they can take these steps as well. The final calls should be to your banking institution, your mortgage company and other lending institutions to notify them of what has occurred and prevent further identity theft.
We do not enjoy alerting you to bad news, but we do take our role in assisting you in lowering your risk seriously. If you have any questions regarding this issue, please feel free to reach out to us.