HOUSTON - Prosecutors tell Local 2 Investigates they are seeing more cases of crooks trying to steal land and homes from unsuspecting owners.
"We have a significant problem," said Harris County Assistant District Attorney Valerie Turner.
Criminals are filing fake deeds with the clerk's office. The deeds show a crook purchased a specific property, even though he has no right to the home.
"These thieves are identifying properties that have been abandoned or have heavy tax liens on them," Turner said. Without the true owner knowing what's going on, the thief files fraudulent paperwork, she said. "They change the locks, file a forged deed and then put a sign in the neighborhood selling it to the nearest buyer."
Turner says it's happening more and more often and doesn't just happen in low-income neighborhoods.
"There are some very nice houses that have had some forged deeds inserted to change the title. It really can happen to anyone," Turner said.
STEALING LAND CAN BE EASY
Turner said land thieves know it is easy to file a fake deed because it can be done anonymously. State law does not allow county clerks to require someone filing a deed to show identification.
"It's very easy to file a fake deed," she said.
Harris County Chief Deputy Clerk George Hammerlein says the no-ID issue is frustrating.
"I think there is a real hole that can be exploited," he said. "I could research your house, prepare a document that says you sold it to me, even if you didn't. Then I could come down here and file a fake deed tomorrow."
Even if county employees believe someone is filing a fake document, they cannot refuse to record it as long as the form is fully filled out with information – real or fake.
"I see more and more cases coming through," Turner said. Half of her docket is filled with land theft cases, she said. In past years, a thief might just steal one property, but that's changing.
"Typically land thieves don't steal just one piece of property. They are going to steal multiple pieces of property. Our investigations involve many properties," Turner said.
Two men from Houston were involved in the theft or attempted theft of 24 properties. Turner prosecuted the men, Richard Nugent and Craig Davidson, who were eventually given probation and told to repay victims.
One man, Dwayne Jordan, stole or attempted to steal about 30 properties, Turner said.
Oscar Martin and Jo Martin unknowingly bought a property near Reed Road and Cullen Boulevard that Jordan tried to steal from the true owner. E Jordon, Inc., a company Jordan was closely involved with according to Turner, granted the property to Garman Homes, which in turn sold it to the Martins.
The Martins were living in a duplex on Houston's south side when the true owner of the property knocked on the door.
"She said she owned this property," Jo Martin said. "I was just in disbelief."
The Martins spent months wondering if they would have to move out of the home.
"I saw this was a real situation where by we could potentially lose our property," Oscar Martin said.
In the end, a title insurance policy the Martin's bought when they paid for the property helped settle the situation. The title insurance company paid the actual owner for the property and now the Martins legally own it.
PROTECT YOUR PROPERTY
Experts say when buying property, title insurance is a necessity.
You can also see who has filed deeds on your property by doing a search at the Harris County Clerk's website.
It is important that you run the search by putting your last name in the grantor field and then run the search again with your last name in the grantee field. The result will show deeds filed with your name, including the correct deed filed when you purchased property or your home.
BILL TO REQUIRE ID FAILED
A bill introduced in the Texas legislature last session would have required clerks to ask for and make a copy of a person's ID when he or she recorded a document.
That bill did not make it out of committee before the session ended so it died.
Texas Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, worked on the bill and hopes it will pass next session.
"I think requiring photo identification when you record a transfer of real estate is an additional safeguard for property owners," Hernandez said. "If someone is filing fraudulent documents and trying to steal your property, at least we have their photo ID on file to help the investigation."
The bill proposed last session would not make copies of the ID available to the general public.
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