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Column: County moves to protect against home title theft

San Diego County made a video, including this photo, that explains how its "Owner Alert" home title theft monitoring works.
San Diego County made a video, including this photo, that explains how its “Owner Alert” home title theft monitoring service works.
(Assessor/Recorder/County Clerk)

Assessor offers title fraud alert to San Diego County homeowners who sign up for its new free service

Surely you have seen former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich on TV speaking out on behalf of title lock insurance — a monitoring service to detect thieves stealing the title to your home.

Has title theft actually happened in San Diego County? Yes.

Is title lock insurance a good investment? Read on and decide for yourself.

Such insurance usually costs from $12 to $20 a month. But the San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk’s office now is offering the monitoring service at a far better price — free.

An announcement was made Friday that a real estate fraud notification service called “Owner Alert” is being activated for all homeowners who sign up for the service and register their parcel number.

“We timed this with the mailing of property tax bills,” says Jordan Marks, chief architect of the new service, noting that parcel numbers are easily available on the bills.

Through an electronic monitoring program, the county will notify property owners whenever their title is changed or a lien is attached.

“My goal is to sign up every San Diego property owner,” says Marks, chief deputy assessor and taxpayer advocate.

Title theft is rare, but it does occur.

Patrick Ojeil, deputy district attorney in charge of real estate fraud in San Diego County, has 38 cases of potential title theft now under investigation.

Most of the time, he says, it is a family member or someone who knows the victim, such as a neighbor, a caregiver or an acquaintance, who tries to hijack the property title. But not always.

In 2015, a high-profile case came to light involving the bizarre theft of the title to Petco Park, appraised at the time for $539 million. A man, later determined to be mentally ill, had assumed title to the ballpark in 2013 by simply walking into the county recorder’s office and filing a fraudulently notarized title transfer form.

After the nefarious deed was discovered, perpetrator Derris McQuaig was charged with a felony. But a judge dismissed the case when McQuaig was determined to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. Instead, he was committed to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County.

No evidence was uncovered that McQuaig had plans to financially benefit from the title transfer, or that it was part of a larger scam. Nevertheless, it created a bureaucratic and legal headache for the city and the Padres and a challenge to get the title properly re-recorded.

Ads for home title lock insurance can give the impression that a house will be stolen out from under the rightful owner, but what generally happens is that loans are taken out capitalizing on the property’s equity.

Often rightful homeowners don’t find out until they apply for a loan or go to sell their home that title tampering has occurred.

Because fraud and forgery have been committed, the property owner is not really in danger of losing their house, but the legal hassle can be expensive and time consuming. It often is compared to identity theft.

Ojeil says some suspects target vacation or second homes that are empty for long periods and use them for rental income.

One active case involves two suspects (one already pleaded guilty) who were hijacking second-home properties throughout California, including two attempted title thefts in San Diego.

Another of the deputy DA’s current cases involves a homeowner who lives in Canada and maintains a vacation home in San Diego. Someone filed a false deed and forged the victim’s name and was trying to take out a mortgage on the property.

Another involved a deceased homeowner’s neighbor who conducted a title transfer that wasn’t discovered until the estate was probated. That property was commandeered for rental income.

In yet another instance, a homeowner facing a foreclosure sale moved out, and a real estate professional filed a false deed, transferred ownership and began renting the house — an action that stalled the lending institution’s foreclosure.

If title transfer filers fill out the paperwork correctly (and include forged signatures of the property owner and falsified notary documentation), the county recorder, under California law, is obligated to record the documents, Ojiel explains.

It is not the county’s job to investigate the veracity of the data. Given the thousands of documents recorded each day, such a requirement would be far too burdensome.

“Unfortunately, there is no way to stop it from happening,” Ojeil says.

While this round-the-clock monitoring service, doesn’t prevent the illegal title transfer, it detects it quickly so the rightful owners can move speedily to fend off serious repercussions.

Enrollment in the fraud notification service is available on the county website: www.SDARCC.com. “It takes less than 10 minutes to sign up,” says Marks.

Registering requires an e-mail address, a property owner’s name or business name and an assessor parcel number, which can be found on the property tax bill or by using the lookup link on the county clerk’s website.

Ojeil says he put his own home on the monitoring service eight months ago during the testing period. He also added his mother’s house and recommends this as an especially useful way family members can protect elderly parents from fraud.

“It’s such a great tool for the community,” he says. “I’ve been trying to spread the word as much as possible.”


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