House stealing, deed theft, title theft: What are these scams and how can you prevent them?

October 26, 2020

Learn how to protect yourself against scams such as house stealing, deed theft, and title theft

A concerned woman looking at a bill that might indicate deed theft scams

We often go to great lengths to prevent theft in our lives. We put our money in bank accounts, lock valuables in safety deposit boxes, and put anti-theft systems on our cars. At home, we guard ourselves and our belongings with door locks and deadbolts and blanket our houses with security systems. These are all important measures, but what happens when someone targets the very house you live in, or more specifically, the deed to your house?

In 2008, the FBI issued a warning to property owners about a new scam that combines identity theft and mortgage fraud. Since then, it has been called by many names, like house stealing, deed theft, and title theft. But what are these scams and how can you prevent them? Can someone really steal the deed to your house? Today, we'll get to the bottom of these questions, so read on!

House stealing, deed theft, title theft - what are they, anyway?

"House stealing," "deed theft," "deed fraud," and "title theft" are all terms that refer to type of criminal activity that combines elements of identity theft and mortgage fraud. It involves a criminal stealing your identity and forging deed or title documents in order to "sell it" to unsuspecting buyers or borrow against it.

However, these terms are somewhat of a misnomer - criminals can't actually "steal" your deed or your house for that matter. What they are doing is creating a forgery of those documents, and therefore they never legally have possession of your deed, and they certainly do not legally gain possession of your home. That having been said, there is plenty of damage that can be done with a forged deed.

How do house stealing, deed theft, and title theft scams work?

These scams often target vacation homes, rental properties, or otherwise vacant houses. However, there have been situations where such a scam took place while the rightful owner still occupied the house. Either way, after finding a target home, they search through public records to find out who owns it, and that person becomes the target of the identity theft. 

Essentially, these criminals piece together your identity from various sources. While this usually takes place on the internet, they might be able to do this using information they find on social media, tax returns, stolen pay stubs, stolen bank records, or even information they gather through phishing scams. While they typically can't fake your identity with a single piece of personal information, when they eventually gather your social security number, date of birth, and address, they can do a lot of damage. 

Just like credit card fraud, the criminal will use your identity and forge signatures to get what they want. However, instead of opening up a line of credit, they use this mask to forge the proper paperwork necessary to make it looks as though they (or a third party) now own the property. 

Once they have these forged documents, the real trouble begins. Often, they will use this to try and put your house on the market, luring buyers in with a good deal. They may also attempt to leverage the fake title to use the property as collateral for a loan, like taking out a second mortgage. 

How to spot and avoid deed theft scams

The best way to prevent deed and title theft scams is to protect your identity. This is a good practice in general as your identity can be used for a variety of scams apart from those outlined here. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to know when someone has sensitive pieces of your personal data, so taking steps to keep it private is important. 

Be careful what information you share on social media and be wary of suspicious emails, or possible phishing attempts or phone scams. It is common for customer service representatives to ask for verification when you call them, or when they are returning a phone call, but it is important to be wary when answering an unprompted call. When talking to any sort of representative of a company on the phone, make sure you are speaking to the right person. No matter what the situation is, no one should ever ask you for a password to an account, so keep that a closely-guarded secret.

Keep important documents in a secure place in your home, or in a safety deposit box at the bank. If you need to get rid of a document that contains sensitive information, make sure to properly dispose of them. Simply cutting documents with scissors likely won't be enough - you need to make sure the pieces are small enough to prevent them from being put back together. 

Your mail can also provide important clues as to whether or not something fishy is going on. Don't automatically toss junk mail, but look through it for for booklets, flyers, or bills from a mortgage company that isn't yours. If you spot something strange, reach out to the lending company to find out what's going on.  

Another good general practice for detecting identity theft is regularly checking your credit score. Most services will outline your individual loans, so if you spot a line of credit or debt that you didn't apply for, you'll know something is up. When fraudsters take out loans in your name, they don't pay the bills, so keep an eye out for any sudden, unexpected hits to your credit score.

Lastly, it's a good idea to periodically check into the records your county has on file for your house and make sure that the signatures and names are correct. Look for inconsistencies in your paperwork, or paperwork you don't remember filing, and keep an eye out for signatures from lawyers you don't know. Some counties have notification systems you can register for to help you keep tabs on all of this. They'll either send you emails or text messages when documents are changed for your property. 

There are title theft protection companies, which operate essentially by checking the same records you can. Of course, this can be valuable as they may be able to check it more frequently than you are willing or able to do yourself. However, beyond that, they usually can't offer much more in the way of protection. 

What happens if someone "steals" the deed to your house?

Fortunately, house stealing, deed theft, deed fraud, or title theft, is rare, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Remember, what these scammers are doing is creating forgeries of your documents, not actually taking ownership of your house. Still, while you will never have strangers legally take control of your house with a fake deed, the fallout of these scams can be very real.

If someone has used a forgery to take out a loan against your house, or otherwise used your identity and title for a scam, setting things straight will likely require the aid of a lawyer. If you suspect that you are a victim of such a scam, the FBI recommends reporting it to them and contacting your local law enforcement office. 

A stack of books containing deeds and titles to for houses and property

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Read more: Criminals often target people on the internet for identity theft, especially when you're using public Wi-Fi. Check out our blog for tips on how to stay safe when using public Wi-Fi!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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