The public records of two homes in a Philadelphia neighborhood with rapidly increasing property values show that the owners inexplicably walked into a notary public and transferred their property rights… years after their deaths. Both homes ended up in the hands of a man named William Ernest Johnson III, who finished some of the transactions while still on parole for an unrelated conviction.
Johnson had bought several properties in the neighborhood as investments. Some of the properties he sold to other buyers. At first, it may seem like a strange coincidence or perhaps Johnson had been misled by an impostor posing as the dead owners. However, after an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Johnson was linked to at least six suspicious property title transfers in less than three years. In each case, he acquired a vacant house with owners who were dead or so elderly that their adult children contested the validity of the transactions.
Stealing a dead or elderly person’s vacant home is sometimes easier than most people may realize. Here’s how Johnson allegedly did it, how others do it, and what the relatives of potential targets need to know to prevent it.
How crooks steal property with fake deeds
Deed fraud, which is also known as property title theft or identity theft house stealing, usually occurs when a home remains unoccupied for some time after the last owner dies or is perhaps moved into an elderly care facility.
Vacation homes, abandoned homes, unoccupied home, and homes that are behind in taxes or mortgage payments are prime targets for criminals looking to steal a property through a forged deed. Sometimes the thief will live in the home, flip the home and sell it, or rent it out.
Clearly, a brazen attitude is the most important characteristic for a deed fraud scam, but there are other steps that the criminal or criminals must take in order to record a fake deed in the public record.
The steps to stealing a house with a fake deed include:
- Search the public records or neighborhoods with unoccupied properties for a target.
- Speak to neighbors about the property. Inquire whether the owner is dead or if any relatives stop by to take care of the place.
- Create a fake deed with a forged signature of the deceased owner.
- Obtain a notary seal (either a counterfeit one or a legitimate one from a less than diligent or corrupt notary).
- The thief then designates himself or herself as the grantee. Sometimes the thief may use a fictitious character or entity or use a stolen identity of a real individual as the grantee.
- If using a fictitious character or stolen identity, the criminal will then later transfer the property to his or her name to obscure the originator of the illicit transaction.
- The deed is then filed with the county or city recorder of deeds for a modest recording fee.
In Philadelphia, once the forgery is created with a dubious signature of the dead or elderly owner and either a counterfeit notary seal or a corrupt notary applies their seal, a person submitting a deed to the city provides identification and is photographed. The documents aren't examined for errors or suspect information before being recorded.
While Johnson insists that he is innocent, in fact a victim himself, of sellers posing as the dead owners, the details in which he gained the title rights of the properties bear the tell-tale signs of deed fraud.
In one case, the transfer of title was executed with a deed bearing the signature and seal of a notary public named Rovella Johnson, a former sister-in-law of William Johnson. Rovella denied notarizing the sale from the dead owner to another party and claimed it was a forgery. She did, however, acknowledge that she notarized the subsequent deed transferring the property to William Johnson.
Another transaction involved two dead sellers, Harriett Dunn and Dorcas Moone. Both signatures were forged, claim the nephews, Michael and Damon Dunn. The deed stealing their aunts’ home listed a woman named Samantha Wilcox as the buyer. Wilcox also “purchased” another home in West Philadelphia from a woman named Nora Jackson. Jackson’s adult children also claim that the sale was fraudulent since their mother, 91, was living in North Carolina at the time she supposedly signed the documents.
Both of the properties that this Wilcox character bought were later transferred to Johnson with the same title company, Pine Hill Abstract LLC, and the same notary, Victor Miller.
Miller states that he was fooled by impostors, who had the proper identification. The Jackson family hired a private investigator to find Samantha Wilcox but turned up nothing. They don’t believe she exists, and there is no trace of Wilcox in regional public records.
The title company, Pine Hill Abstract LLC, it turns out, is fictional too. There is no company registered in the state of Pennsylvania with that name.
Recording a fake deed is easier than you might think
You may be wondering how someone could steal another person’s house so easily?
In order for a fraudulent deed to be successfully recorded, the perpetrator must artfully capture the grantor signature and notary seal, either through forgery, deceit, or duress. In some cases, the scammer may either use an unsuspecting notary or provide false identification. Other times, the notary may be in on the scam.
It may also surprise you that some forged documents are recorded by professionals in the mortgage industry. During the foreclosure crisis, it was revealed that loan servicers’ employees “robo-signed” all kinds of foreclosure documents like affidavits, assignments of mortgage and other documents used for judicial and nonjudicial foreclosure procedures. After media broke the story of the routine robo-signing scandal, judges in judicial states began looking at affidavits more critically. In states that don’t require a judicial review, some homeowners brought lawsuits against the banks to stop foreclosures on the ground that false documents had been recorded as a part of the nonjudicial foreclosure process.
Whether a forged deed or improper foreclosure paperwork, documents and court proceedings that fraudulently grant title rights to another party aren’t always scrutinized before being recorded permanently in the public record.
In fact, the role of the recording office is not to review or verify the veracity of the documents it records. State laws actually limit the county or city recorder’s ability to refuse a possible fraudulent document. The clerk is only expect to ensure that the document meets the requirements for recording and then simply record it.
How to protect a deceased family member’s property from deed fraud
In order to protect you and your family’s interest in a property, follow these tips to fight deed fraud.
- Know the risk factors for deed fraud. Keep a close eye on your or your family member’s unoccupied and vacation homes.
- Know the warning signs of deed fraud
- Unpaid bills. A notice of unpaid water bill, tax bill or mortgage bill (if your identity was stolen) or not receiving a water bill or tax bill that you should have received for a property you own. In the case of identity theft, the scammer may go to the taxing authority to change the billing address to hide any suspicious behavior.
- Notice of foreclosure. Receipt of notice of foreclosure for a mortgage you never had.
- Signs of activity. Check for any activity at an unoccupied home or vacation house.
- Initiate a probate of the estate as soon as possible after the death of a family member.
- Monitor the public record for any suspicious activity related to the property. Some county clerk websites have an option to place fraud alerts on your or your family member's property.
- Talk to family members about their will and wishes before illness or death occurs.
If you or your family member is the victim of deed fraud, you should reach out to a real estate attorney. The first thing that needs to be done is to file an affidavit and notice of false filing with the county or city recorder’s office. This will put a red flag on the property’s title, warning any lenders and future buyers that there’s a problem under review. This will keep the property from being sold to an unsuspecting party.
A title agent’s role in protecting homebuyers from falsified documents
The Jackson family in Philadelphia is fighting for their stolen property, but even with some convincing evidence to support their claims, they can expect to pay several thousands of dollars in court costs.
A deed fraud scam can result in more than just one victim. There is the rightful owner and their family and then the unsuspecting buyer of the property from the scammer. In order to protect yourself from becoming the latter, be sure to obtain a professional title search and homeowner’s insurance policy from a title company or real estate law firm.
For homebuyers, a homeowner’s title insurance policy can offer protection from deed fraud and other falsified documents that put their title rights in jeopardy. The job of the title agent or agent-attorney is to review the chain of title documents that are in the public record for any defects and clear them up before closing and issuing a title insurance policy. Some of the most common title defects that settlement agents must clear are related to errors in the public record, unknown liens, illegal deeds, unknown heirs, and forgeries.