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Can someone really steal the title (or legal rights) to your home? Home title theft can (and does) happen — and when it does, the consequences can be devastating. Here’s everything you need to know about this new form of online identity theft, including what exactly home title theft is, how it happens, and how a data breach protection tool can help you safeguard your identity online.
Home title theft is when the title or legal ownership of a property is fraudulently transferred without your knowledge or consent. Using stolen information to forge documents, a fraudster can claim ownership in order to pose as a legal property owner and take out a mortgage or another type of loan against your home.
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Home title fraud, deed theft, and property title theft are all different names for the same fraudulent theft of property rights. Scammers usually target particularly vulnerable homes, such as when the owner is elderly or recently deceased. Vacation properties or second-home residences are also common targets, because suspicious activity may not be noticed until it’s too late. Home title theft can even result in someone fraudulently selling your home.
Worse still, this form of real estate identity theft often doesn’t stop at stealing homes. Criminals can use stolen titles to carry out other types of fraud, such as home equity theft, which involves opening new lines of credit using your home as collateral, leaving you saddled with the unpaid debt.
There are several ways home title theft happens, but the most common way is that a thief will steal your identity to forge a phony deed to transfer ownership to themselves or an associate.
Typically, scammers create fake identities using social security numbers and other personal identifiers they can uncover online. They may even purchase such information from data brokers — legal companies that collect personal information and sell it to third-parties. Another way home title theft can happen is by cybercriminals unlawfully scooping up personal data exposed in a data breach.
Despite the well-publicized danger of online identity theft and other cybercrimes, identity fraud is often associated with compromised online accounts or stolen credit card details. The possibility that someone can actually steal the title to your home isn’t as well-known, which helps make home title thieves’ jobs easier.
There are many ways that online scammers can access your personal data to help them commit home title theft. Here are some of the most common ways identity theft occurs:
Phishing happens when cybercriminals send an apparently legitimate looking email or text message to try to get you to click on an infected link. The link may trigger a malware infection or send you to a website designed to harvest your personal data. The aim is to get access to the private info needed to steal your identity or access financial assets.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Amazon phishing scams are now one of the most common methods for targeting sensitive personal information. A 2021 report estimated that Amazon scams — using unauthorized purchase alerts, fake prizes, and phony confirmation emails — had increased 500% from the previous year.
Once embedded in your computer, viruses and other malware can access your sensitive information and leave you extremely vulnerable to identity theft. An especially potent form of malware is spyware, which silently lurks on devices, monitoring activity and grabbing personal data like passwords and text messages.
Malware like spyware can help cybercriminals commit home title theft.
Spyware can be tough to spot, but finding and removing spyware is possible with the right tools. A malware removal tool will thoroughly scan your device, removing threats quickly and keeping your private info safe.
Using unsecured networks can leave you wide open to hacking. Public Wi-Fi is usually unprotected and unencrypted, making it a favorite hangout for thieves looking to pocket your data.
Avoiding unsecured networks is an easy way to protect yourself. But if you have to get online, use a VPN to encrypt your connection and stay safe on public Wi-Fi. A VPN offers many benefits, but one of its main advantages is that it will hide your location, helping to conceal your identity and keep your online activities safe from prying eyes.
With just a single click, Avast SecureLine VPN provides bank-grade encryption to hide all your incoming and outgoing data. SecureLine VPN will keep your messages and personal info private, even if you have to use a public hotspot to go online.
Home title theft may be less prevalent than other forms of identity theft, but it’s a growing problem that can leave victims incurring costs of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Beyond the value of the property itself — and debt from fraudulent loans — victims also face expensive legal costs to get their home titles back. The Journal of World Economic Research estimates that deed fraud will have cost over $1 billion in damages in 2022 alone.
But forged documents and deeds alone don’t guarantee successful home title theft. Thieves have to get past county recorders, notaries, and lenders — and all of their various layers of protection — if they hope to make any money. It’s a high-risk scheme with a relatively low chance of success.
So, is home title theft real? Yes. Is it a big problem? For the relatively small number of people who become victims: absolutely. But it’s also a very complex and difficult scam to pull off, and one that you can make all the more tricky for fraudsters with a few basic protections.
While you can take out title lock insurance, it may offer little protection, because it alerts you if a deed has been transferred from your name only after the theft has already taken place. The best protection against home title theft is to stop it from happening in the first place — and that means preventing identity theft.
Simply educating yourself about common scams and cyber threats to better understand scammers' tactics can help you avoid becoming a victim. Once you know about social engineering and other types of deception criminals use to trick you into sharing personal information, you’ll be much less likely to fall victim to identity theft, fraud, or blackmail.
Understanding how phishing and other online scams work can protect you from identity theft.
But no matter how aware you are, always practice safe online browsing, and use security software to safeguard your private data. Comprehensive cybersecurity software includes tools like email scanners to check for malicious links and attachments and VPNs to encrypt online connections.
Home title fraud scammers prefer easy targets, so securing your sensitive data and protecting your identity will go a long way toward making sure you aren’t a mark.
Even with every precaution, it’s still possible for your data to leak online if websites or accounts that have your details are compromised. But early detection of such breaches will help you stay ahead of would-be identity thieves, and thwart home title scammers before they can do long-term damage.
Avast BreachGuard monitors the darkest corners of the web around the clock, keeping an eye out for data breaches and other hacks. If we find any traces of your data, we’ll alert you immediately and help you take the right steps to secure your personal information. Get Avast BreachGuard today and regain control of your personal data online.