Property Fraud in Chicago – Check Your Deed

Property Fraud in Chicago – Check Your Deed for Theft

“It’s easier to steal a house than a car.”

That is the message Karen Yarbrough, Cook County Recorder of Deeds, is trying to spread throughout Cook County.  Property fraud  in Chicago is a very real problem as well as other areas across the country.  I have actually ran across these situations a few times in my own real estate practices. Homeowners try to sell their house only to find that someone has filed a quit claim deed.  Someone else has taken title to their home or taken a mortgage on the home.

Property fraud is the intentional filing of false deeds or liens with the recorder’s office.  This is an offense known as “unlawful clouding of title.”   County records are public and searchable online so anyone can view the records of a property.  Credit agencies, banks and businesses use the county recorder to document mortgages and debts owed. This is why the system remains open for anyone.  However, this also allows illegitimate claims to be filed.

Yarbrough’s office has identified two types of fraud. One poses a threat to a property owner’s credit and finances, the other is used as a personal attack. Both can be expensive to combat and are serious threats to a homeowner, but are filed for different reasons.
John Mirkovic, Yarbrough’s communications director, explained how a document could be filed with malicious intent against a property. “You could pay $50 and put a lien on someone who you feel has wronged you. It could cost them thousands to take it off.”

Mirkovic said that the recorder’s office often sees claims of money owed for work done on a house.  Quitclaim deeds are also filed to transfer ownership of a property. While these filings can be done for legal reasons, often they are indicators of fraudulent activity. In malicious filings, the claimant often won’t actually expect to take ownership of the property or collect for services rendered. The claimant only wants to make things difficult for the property owner.

Claimants may say ‘I’m going to pretend that I did work on this guy’s house and file a $25,000 lien on it for services rendered”.   A title company is going to look at that and won’t be able to tell that it’s not legitimate.”  Mirkovic said that these types of records can severely damage the home-buying process. “It’ll be on the courts to get it rectified.  It can delay a real estate transaction, or it can completely scuttle it.”
The other type of fraud is more predatory than vindictive. These cases occur when a perpetrator identifies a home that is either vacant or no longer carries any financial burden – the mortgage is paid and there are no additional liens on the property. According to Mirkovic, property thieves often identify the houses in person, then go online to identify their target.
“You could use public information to cherry-pick a house with no mortgage – find one that’s owned by an elderly person and paid off.” Mirkovic explained how, in the eyes of the recorder’s office, a notarized deed filed on a property is assumed legitimate and not initially questioned.

“You own it now. Each action after that is more fraud, but if you’ve already stolen the house, you’ll sign other documents taking out a loan.” A homeowner, without regularly checking the status of a deed, may not know that someone else has taken advantage of their asset – until the homeowner is responsible for someone else’s mortgage on the property.  Often, the legitimate homeowner is unaware of the problem until they try to sell the home or the homeowner dies.

There are some steps that can be taken to protect yourself.  Cook County has a Property Fraud Alert system which will routinely check your Property Identity Number (PIN) to see if there have been any filings such as quit claim deeds, liens, mortgages, etc.  This allows you to see if there is a problem quickly and address it right away.  Click here for a link to tell how to check your Cook County deed, what should and should not be there and what are possible flags to fraudulent activity.  It may be a good idea to check on your deed at least once a year.
I will also mention that, along with fraudulent deed transfer or malicious filings, check to make sure that your delinquent property taxes have not been purchased.  If you or your family member reside or own a home where the mortgage has been paid off or is vacant, you may want to especially be on alert.

Of course this problem is not restricted to Cook County.  If you reside in other counties within the Chicago area or elsewhere, contact your county’s recorder of deeds office to see how you can check for documents or liens filed against your property.  You can also read the link above telling how to check a Cook County deed so that you can know what to look for in other county.

If you are looking to buy or sell real estate in the Chicago area, please give me a call or email.

Millie C. Lumpkin, Broker