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.

Matthew Cox, notorious fraudster, resurfaces

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Check out the August issue of The Atlantic

matthew cox

Picture courtesy of The Atlantic, August 2019 issue

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, 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 actually 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.

For a much more colorful account of these criminal activities and Cox’s attempt to write “true crime” stories from the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida, I refer you to the comprehensive and entertaining article written by Rachel Monroe in the August issue of The Atlantic magazine. Please enjoy the full text of the article here.

Ms. Monroe said she had been contacted by Matthew Cox by email telling her he was attempting to write a body of work that would allow him to exit prison with a new career. He described himself as “an infamous con man writing his fellow inmates’ true crime stories while immersed in federal prison.”

The crimes perpetuated by Cox and Hauck were made easier by the housing bubble itself. Everything was inflated and values were hard to nail down. And closings were occurring at a lightening pace. This excellent article made my heart skip a beat as I was reminded of those times. I hope all of us in the real estate industry have learned valuable lessons that will similar prevent mortgage fraud in the future. Those of us who made it through the economic downturn are certainly older and hopefully wiser!

At the Intersection of Football and Mortgage Fraud

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Five time NFL Pro-Bowler jailed

football fieldIt’s a sad day in South Carolina! Post-flood, many South Carolinians are reeling from the damage to their homes and businesses. Many are dealing with insurance companies and FEMA, and more continue to boil water and dodge blocked roads and bridges. And in the midst of our State’s recovery, legendary Coach Steve Spurrier is hanging up his visor after eleven years coaching our beloved Gamecocks. As I was thinking about the idea of loss today, I decided to write about a place where football and real estate (in this case real estate fraud!) intersect.

We need only look back as far as October 2, when retired NFL wide receiver Irving Fryar was sentenced to five years in prison by a state court in New Jersey on charges of conspiracy and theft by deception. Fryar’s mother, Allene McGhee, was given three-years’ probation on the same charges.

Irving Fryar was the first wide receiver to be the NFL’s number one draft pick in 1984 when the New England Patriots made him their top selection. In his remarkable 17-year career, he played for the Patriots, the Dolphins, the Eagles and the Redskins. He played in Super Bowl XX with the Patriots and scored the Patriots’ only touchdown in that game in their loss to the Bears. He made it to the Pro Bowl five times and retired in 2001.

He was, at times, a troubled player. In 1986, he missed a game after being injured in a domestic dispute with his pregnant wife. In 1988, he was arrested on weapons charges. There were also headlines involving drug use, depression and even attempted suicide. But he purportedly turned his life around. While still playing, he received a Ph.D. from the North Carolina College of Theology and became a minister. After retirement from the NFL, he founded New Jerusalem House of God in his home town, Mount Holly, New Jersey, and became its preacher. He was also a regular speaker at the NFL rookie symposium and a high school football coach. His message in all these capacities was “don’t do what I did”, and “it’s never too late for salvation”.

So where did this redemption story run off the rails? Prosecutors argued in a three-week jury trial that Fryar and his mother, along with a financial advisor who testified against them, used false employment and income information to close six home equity loans on Ms. McGhee’s home in Willingsboro, New Jersey in 2009 in a six-day period.  Loan applications stated that Ms. McGhee earned $6,000 per month as an events coordinator at her son’s church. Each lender agreed to make a loan on the belief that it would be in first lien position. Four of the loans were closed in a single day! Only a few payments were made, and the lenders had to either foreclose or write off their loans.

This mortgage fraud scheme will sound familiar to Columbia lawyers. Matthew Cox a/k/a Gary Sullivan moved to Columbia in the summer of 2004, buying two homes in northeast Columbia communities. He convinced the sellers in both transactions to enter into seller financing transactions. He forged mortgage satisfactions on the sellers’ mortgages and subsequently obtained multiple institutional mortgages on both properties within several days in February of 2005, amounting to more than $1 million. He then disappeared. This scam was widely reported in the real estate community in Columbia and in newspapers in three states. Matthew Cox was a former Tampa mortgage broker who was eventually convicted of mortgage fraud in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia and served time in federal prison.

I will never forget the phone call from a Columbia lawyer who said courthouse abstractors discovered this scheme on the day of the closings by conferring about the name of the borrower whose title they were all updating!

SpurrierNo dirt lawyer looks back with nostalgia at those days of loose lending practices that were a major factor in the global financial crisis. But Irving Fryar’s story is a reminder that the clean-up from those days is not over!

Now back to football. Steve Spurrier is an outstanding coach who has done a remarkable job in our state. I wish him good luck and God speed in retirement. Now, let’s find our next great coach!