The pandemic may not be a priority topic anymore but residual effects remain for victims of property fraud. While not a new enterprise, many Texas courtrooms saw and continue to adjudicate an uptick in cases of this type. Lockdowns, eviction moratoria, and unemployment created a hotbed of criminal opportunity as many homeowners were unable to manage critical accounts properly.
A typical case might be a homeowner who checks on a vacant property only to find ‘sovereign’ residents—squatters—who claim the property is theirs. Or a divorced spouse finds someone living in a co-owned home rented out by the ex without permission. Some offenders simply drive through neighborhoods looking for vacant homes, break in and change the locks, then rent or sell the home to an unsuspecting buyer.
HOW IT HAPPENS
Justice of the Peace Evelyn McLean and Williamson County Clerk Nancy Rister say these ‘paper terrorists’ upped their game in frequency and creativity during the pandemic.
Ms. Rister says, “Criminals also count on homeowners who don’t recognize errors in their tax forms, or don’t realize they haven’t received timely documents from their mortgage company.” To create legitimacy, criminals must file documents with the County Clerk’s office. Her staff assess all filings for red flags but may not review a case right away. In 2021 alone, due to real estate surges, they processed 167,000 documents, a 30 percent increase over the previous year. “We are not authorized to study and turn down documents at the counter,” she adds. “But even fraudulent documents receive a number and are filed to the public record so they can’t remain covert.”
Judge McLean heard a case in which a woman received a foreclosure notice while living in a home she had paid off. She recalls, “She had hired a pool company in 1999. They dug the hole then went out of business so the mechanic’s lien was null because the business no longer existed. In 2020, she got a call from a mortgage company in another state that had filed paperwork to foreclose on the lien—liens have no expiration date—and then sold the home to a property management company.”
WHAT TO DO
- Judge McLean says, “Just like the scam IRS and Social Security calls, no one from your mortgage company will call to threaten you, so just hang up. Be aware of your annual escrow and insurance schedules and be vigilant about checking payment status.”
- Notify neighbors about vacations; thieves don’t need a year-long deployment to move in and if a squatter possesses any type of documentation, law enforcement can not remove them. Do make the 9-1-1 call to get it on the record.
- If buying a second home that you’re not living in all the time, check on sudden spikes in utility bills in person and install a security camera or alarm because you can not always count on your neighbors to report back to you.
- Ms. Rister says not receiving a tax statement for your home is one of the first warning signs. It may be that someone already stole your identity and sold your note; you are not the owner of record any more so you can be evicted or foreclosed for non-payment.
- Any documents filed for your address—since 1838 to last week—are available for review at the Clerk’s office, including title applications and liens filed illegally. Look up your own name at the District Clerk website or in their library to review signatures, especially if you are a first-time or widowed owner. Library staff may not give advice, but will help you find what you need.
Visit the website to sign up for fraud alerts on the clerk’s website and call the office (512-943-1515), before you call the mortgage company, about suspicious filings.