Is “title theft” a thing?

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Can and should a consumer buy protection against title theft?

Several years ago, a real estate lawyer asked whether title insurance companies should offer protection against “title theft”…the protection touted by the companies who routinely advertise their services on the radio. This question prompted us to research the services of those companies and analyze whether title insurance companies should offer the same service.

The advertisers who bombard the airwaves with warnings about title theft say thieves can steal homes by forging the names of homeowners on deeds, then reselling or mortgaging the property to hijack the equity. The thieves would purportedly pocket the proceeds, leaving the homeowner without title or with new mortgage payments. The companies promise to monitor title to protect against such devastating losses.

My understanding of the product being offered at that time was that the company would regularly check the land records to see whether the homeowner’s name appeared on any deed or mortgage. The homeowner would be notified of any “hits”. If the homeowner responded to the notification that the instrument in question was, in fact, a forgery, then the company would prepare and file in the land records a document to alert future buyers and lenders of the forgery. I was told that the product did not include attorneys’ fees for clearing titles.

But is “title theft” a thing? Does a forged deed convey real estate? No! Does a forged mortgage require the true owner of the real estate to make payments? No! But can a forger wreak havoc for a property owner? Yes, indeed!

I’ll never forget the name, Matthew Cox or the telephone call that tipped us off that we had a serious mortgage fraud situation here in Columbia. Long before the housing bubble popped beginning in late 2007, an attorney called to let us know what was going on that day in the Richland County ROD office. Representatives of several closing offices were recording mortgages describing the same two residential properties in Blythewood, as if the properties had been refinanced multiple times in the same day by different closing offices.

At first, we thought our company and our attorney agent were in the clear because our mortgage got to record first. South Carolina is a race notice state and getting to record first matters. Later, we learned that deeds to the so-called borrower were forged, so there was no safety for anyone involved in this seedy scenario. Thousands of dollars were lost.

Next, we learned about the two fraudsters who had moved to Columbia from Florida through Atlanta to work their mischief here. The two names were Matthew Cox and Rebecca Hauck. We heard that Cox had been in the mortgage lending business in Florida, where he got into trouble for faking loan documents. He had the guts to write a novel about his antics when he lost his brokerage license and needed funds, but the novel was never published. With funds running low, Cox and his girlfriend, Hauck, moved to Atlanta and then Columbia to continue their mortgage fraud efforts.

We didn’t hear more from the pair until several years later, when we heard they had thankfully been arrested and sent to federal prison.

The crimes perpetuated by Cox and Hauck were made easier by the housing bubble itself. Housing values were inflated and appraisals were hard to nail down. And closings were occurring at a lightening pace. The title companies who had issued commitments and closing protection letters for the lenders were definitely “on the hook”. And the important thing about title insurance is that coverage includes attorneys’ fees for defending titles. I don’t believe the property owners in this case had any coverage but clearing the mortgage issues eventually cleared their title problems.

Would the title theft products have been valuable to the homeowners in this situation? The companies may have notified the owners of the forged deeds and may have filed some kind of notice of the forgery in the land records, but that is all they would have done. Nothing would have prevented the forged mortgages. I am now informed that, under some circumstances, attorneys’ fees to clear title may be included with the title theft products, so perhaps today, the owners would have some protection with a title theft product. These products require “subscriptions” and periodic payments.

A far better alternative is the coverage provided by the ALTA Homeowners Policy of Title Insurance which requires a one-time payment at closing. This is the policy we commonly call “enhanced” coverage. The cost of this policy is twenty percent higher than the traditional owner’s policy, but it includes protection for several events that may occur post-closing. Forgery is one of those events. And, again, title insurance coverage includes attorneys’ fees.

Dirt lawyers who are asked about the title theft products should advise their clients that they can check the land records, most of which are online, to discover whether anyone has “stolen” their titles. And, better yet, they can buy title insurance coverage for peace of mind.

A Certain Path to Disbarment:

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Fake a title insurance agency and ignore a real estate practice!

In the Matter of Samaha* is a South Carolina Supreme Court attorney disciplinary case that resulted in disbarment.

This lawyer was creative; you have to give him that!

For starters, he witnessed and notarized the signature of his client’s late wife, who had died seven years earlier. He typed, witnessed and notarized a revocation of a durable power of attorney for an 83 year old retired paralegal with cognitive and physical limitations.

Perhaps the most interesting violations, however, had to do with the title insurance. (What? It’s tough to make title insurance interesting. Trust me. I try and fail on a daily basis. This stuff is only interesting to title nerds like me!)

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A relationship with a title insurance company is essential to a real estate practice in South Carolina. The closing attorney must either be in a position to issue his own title insurance commitments and policies as an agent, or to certify to a title insurance company as an approved attorney to obtain those documents.

Consider the activities of  Mr. Breckenridge, the lawyer who was publicly reprimanded this spring for allowing non-attorney entities to control his real estate practice.** During oral arguments, he stated that he preferred to handle closings in the customary manner in South Carolina, where the attorney acts as agent for a title insurance company as well as closing attorney. But he had been suspended by the Supreme Court for a short time and, as a result, had been canceled as an agent by his title insurance company. He said he was then forced to work for an entity that hires lawyers to attend closings only.  When a problem arose with the disbursement of one of those closings, he found himself in front of the Supreme Court again.

Mr. Samaha had also been canceled by his title insurance companies. That did not stop him and his staff from proceeding full steam ahead with closings in the customary manner.  Although he originally denied any knowledge that documents had been forged in his office, he ultimately admitted that closing protection letters had been forged and issued to lenders.

A mortgage lender later uncovered not only forged closing protection letters, but also forged title insurance commitments and policies. It was not possible for Mr. Samaha to obtain any of these documents legitimately during this timeframe, because his status had been canceled as an approved attorney as well as an agent. The Court commented that, absent the forgeries of these documents, the lawyer’s real estate practice could not have functioned.

(This is not the first disbarred lawyer in South Carolina to have included the forgery of title insurance documents in his repertoire of misdeeds.***)

The Court stated that Mr. Samaha allowed his staff to, in effect, run his office. He failed to supervise them and failed to supervise and review closing documents.  He, in effect, completely ignored his real estate practice.


He also committed professional violations of a more mundane but equally scary nature. For example, he made false and misleading statements on the application for his professional liability insurance.

red card - suitHe failed to pay off four mortgages. By his own calculations, the loss was more than $200,000, but the Office of Disciplinary Counsel stated that his financial records and computers had been destroyed, making it impossible to prove the true extent of the financial mismanagement and misappropriation.  Apparently, the money from new closings was used to fund prior closings, up until the date of Mr. Samaha’s suspension from the practice of law.

 

*In the Matter of Samaha, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27660 (August 24, 2016)

** In the Matter of Breckenridge, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27625 (April 20, 2016)

*** In the Matter of Davis, 411 S.C. 209, 768 S.E.2d 206 (2015)