Erika Morini, a Jewish, Austrian violinist born in 1904, was one of the greatest female violinists ever. A student of Oscar Sevcik (best known for his torturous violin exercise books), Morini made her debut with the Chicago Symphony at age 17. In 1945, she was the first violinist—and the first woman—to produce a commercial recording as a soloist with an orchestra.
In 1924, Morini’s father paid $10,000 to buy her the Davidoff Stradivarius violin. This instrument quickly became her preferred performance instrument for the remainder of her life. When she died at age 91, she was cradling her Strad in her arms.
Morini didn’t know that the violin she was cradling was a replica of her Strad. Her treasured violin, then worth about $4 million, had been stolen from her apartment shortly before her death. Since there was no sign of a break-in, law enforcement concluded the theft must have been planned by someone close to Morini.
This violin, now called the Davidoff-Morini Strad, has yet to be found. To this day, the FBI’s website describes the theft as an unsolved case.
Indirectly, Morini may have aided the thieves. Rather than securing her valuable instrument in a safe or bank lockbox, Morini wanted to keep it close to her. So, it remained in a wardrobe with a lock that could be opened with a skeleton key, and the instrument’s location was well known among her inner circle. Since few had access to Morini’s apartment, someone known to her likely was involved in the theft.
Like Morini, no homeowner would intentionally help a thief steal their home. However, that’s what happened recently to an Ohio couple. This article discusses how thieves can steal title to real estate and what owners can do to protect themselves.
How the Home-Stealing Scam Works
These facts are based on a news report from NBC4.com. I’ve added to the scenario to fill in the gaps.
A couple, whom I’ll call the Smiths, received a letter supposedly from the County Treasurer’s office. The letter informed the Smiths that there was a problem with their real estate tax payments and issues with their deeds. The Smiths were concerned – they didn’t want to lose their home due to real estate tax issues.
At some point, the Smiths received a letter, also supposedly from the County Treasurer, which included revised deeds and other documents to sign and have notarized. They were assured that all issues would be resolved once the papers were signed. The Smiths signed and returned the documents, breathing a sigh of relief.
Their relief was short-lived. A couple of weeks later, a man (whom I’ll call Sam) knocked on the Smith’s front door. He informed them he was the new owner of their home and that they needed to move out. The Smiths closed the door and called the police, and Sam left before they arrived.
An investigation revealed that the documents the Smiths signed were a deed and other documents transferring title to their home to Sam’s company. Sam had recorded those documents and transferred the real estate title to his company. So, technically, Sam did own the Smith’s house.
Eventually, the Smiths got the title back in their name. Sam was arrested, convicted of fraud, and is in prison.
Other Versions of the Home-Stealing Scam
The Smith’s situation was the first time I had heard of this version of this scam. More common scams involve a supposed mortgage refinance. Similar to the same I wrote about in Protect Yourself from Mortgage Refinance Fraud, this version of the scam preys on people who are behind on their mortgage payments.
Those homeowners, desperate for mortgage loan relief, are quick to believe it when a supposed debt relief company contacts them offering a low-cost mortgage refinance. However, included in the documents for the supposed new mortgage loan is a deed where the homeowner signs the title over to the home.
In another version of the scam, the debt relief company informs the homeowners that their program requires them to sign over the title to their home. In that version of the scam, the debt relief company promises to pay the mortgage payments and allow the homeowners to continue to live in the home.
What actually happens is that the mortgage loan doesn’t get paid off, the home goes into foreclosure, and the homeowners must move. Any equity the homeowners have built up in the home goes to the fraudulent debt relief company upon foreclosure since it now owns the home.
A final variation of the home-stealing scheme doesn’t involve homeowner “cooperation.” Instead, a scammer forges a deed transferring title to themselves. Although this scam might look easier to resolve, it still can create a lot of headaches for homeowners as they struggle to prove they didn’t sign a deed and get government records corrected.
Protecting Yourself from Home-Stealing Scams
Home-stealing scams can’t work without cooperation from the homeowner by deeding the house to the scammers (albeit unintentionally or under fraudulent circumstances). Therefore, homeowners are the first line of defense in preventing home stealing.
Homeowners should consider the following before signing legal documents:
Verify the Source
The Smiths could have protected themselves by calling the County Treasurer when they received the letter about real estate taxes. As a reminder, homeowners shouldn’t call the telephone number on the letter they receive. Instead, they should check the government website (using a search engine–not the URL in the letter) and call that number to verify the letter is authentic.
Also, real estate tax amounts and real estate titles are usually in the public record, and many are online. Sometimes, the payment status is public record, also. A homeowner may be able to verify the status of their payments online. Homeowners who are uncertain how to verify this information should consult an attorney to assist them.
Beware of Unsolicited Emails, Phone Calls, or Mailed Ads
The mortgage refinance variation of the home-stealing scam frequently starts with an unsolicited email, phone call, or targeted mailed ad. Fraudsters may send letters to individuals whose homes are in foreclosure – assuming they will be desperate.
Plus, robocalls and spam emails are cheap to send. Scammers send out thousands, maybe even millions, of these calls and emails, hoping to find someone desperate for mortgage relief. I receive at least one suspicious phone call and email a week – and I have seen many more such emails in my spam filter.
Don’t Sign a Deed
Deeds usually will have the word “deed” somewhere in their title. Some states call their mortgages “deeds of trusts” or “deeds to secure debt,” which can create confusion. But words like “special warranty deed,” “quitclaim deed,” or “limited warranty deed” are put on documents that convey title.
Don’t Just Sign Signature Pages
In commercial real estate transactions where the mortgage documents are complicated, it’s not uncommon for the parties to put signature pages in escrow and to authorize attaching them to the final documents. This practice isn’t common in residential mortgage transactions.
Beware of Breakaway Signature Pages
It’s common for signatures on loan documents to be on pages separate from the documents. However, often, the name of the document (e.g., mortgage) will be in a footer. If the signature page doesn’t specify the document, the page could be attached to a different document – such as a deed. The way to prevent this type of fraud is for homeowners to know who they are dealing with before signing documents.
Pay Particular Attention to Notarized or Witnessed Documents
Deeds must be notarized. In some states, they also must have witnesses. It’s easiest for a scammer to steal a home if they use actual notarized signatures from the owners.
Of course, a scammer might not add a fake notary acknowledgment or fake witnesses – or even fake signatures. But homeowners should be cautious where their notarized signatures go.
If in Doubt, Hire an Attorney
Many homeowners don’t use attorneys for refinances or simple residential transactions. That’s understandable. Attorneys can seem expensive for what looks like a routine transaction.
However, for many people, their home is their largest single asset—and their mortgage loan is their largest single debt. If a homeowner becomes a victim of fraud, it can cost far more to address that issue than it would have had the homeowner paid for a qualified attorney upfront.
Erika Morini never learned that by refusing to improve security for her Strad, someone in her close circle betrayed her by stealing it. But homeowners who are victims of home-stealing schemes usually learn about the fraud and experience the stress, emotional burden, hassle, and expense of clearing up their title. Some may still lose their homes to foreclosure if they believe the fraudster was making mortgage payments.
Homeowners who are vigilant, suspicious about unexpected communications, and cautious about what they sign usually can prevent becoming victims of home-stealing scams. Unfortunately, there are plenty of homeowners who, like the Smiths, won’t be as careful and will become victims.
© 2022 by Elizabeth A. Whitman
Any references clients and their legal situations have been modified to protect client confidentiality. Other facts may have been changed to protect individuals’ identities and privacy.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is for informational purposes only and does not provide legal advice to any person. No one should take any action regarding the information in this blog without first seeking the advice of an attorney. Neither reading this blog nor communication with Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC or Elizabeth A. Whitman creates an attorney-client relationship. No attorney-client relationship will exist with Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC or any attorney affiliated with it unless a written contract is signed by all parties.