MAYWOOD — A crowd of about 75 to 100 senior citizens gathered inside the gymnasium of the Maywood Park District last Thursday to hear Cook Country Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough talk about property fraud–a seemingly dry, innocuous topic, until a news clip began to play on a projector screen setup near the gym’s exit. The news clip brought the warning home.
“In Illinois, it’s easier to steal a home than it is to steal a car,” said a voice.
The clip featured Chicago City Treasurer Stephanie Neely recounting how she became a victim of a scam that many homeowners may know nothing about. In a separate interview on Can TV21 in 2011, Neely detailed how it happened. It turns out, the scam is brazenly simple.
“I didn’t even know I was a victim….until a reporter called me to tell me there was an entity in Cook County that has stolen the deed title to 30 different homes in the Chicagoland area,” she said. ”
“[Someone] can go into the Recorder of Deeds [and for $40] file a fraudulent affidavit and change the title on your home. I’ve lived in my home for almost 13 years. I must admit, I almost never checked the name on the title and in April someone changed the name on my title, the deed to my home. I had to hire an attorney who was willing to [work the case] pro bono for all 30 of us.”
And the victimization doesn’t stop with Neely. The Recorder of Deeds herself said that she’s been a victim of the rampant abuse and exploitation of a vast system ripe for abusing and exploiting.
“When I became Recorder, I found a $143,000 mortgage that had been recorded against my property. If I died or my husband died and tried to pass this property forward, here’s this $143,000 mortgage that would have to be dealt with,” she said, noting that the claim was the result of a mistake.
One of the reasons the scam is so simple is because, shockingly, county recorders aren’t authorized by law to verify the legal claims made on the seemingly innumerable documents they are tasked with recording–a handicap that criminals are only too eager to exploit.
The result, for many victims of this kind of fraud, can mean a deluge of legal bills and stress, to only mention what is nearly certain to happen. The less likely, but far more disconcerting, result may be the loss of a home.
“This woman was in her house and they actually changed the lock while she was looking out the window,” said Yarbrough, recounting the case featured in the news clip that she showed. “The Chicago Police department came, but the guy didn’t go away. He showed police the title and they said, ‘Well, we guess he owns the property.’ But our office had had some dealings with this lady. She knew to call us.”
Since assuming office in January of last year, Yarbrough has taken up this cause with a missionary’s zeal, revamping a Free Property Fraud Alert system that would notify homeowners who register for the service of any Quitclaim Deeds filed against their properties, which may indicate fraud. Yarbrough called the system her office’s signature program. On Thursday, she was in Maywood urging area seniors to signup with the characteristic enthusiasm she brings to campaigning. She said that, although the alert system had been in place before she came into office, it had barely been utilized, was in disrepair and even somewhat misleading.
“There were 500 registrations done when I walked in office,” she said. The program was already there. They called it mortgage fraud, but it’s really not. This is really property fraud. The hyperlink on the website was wrong, so we got that fixed and we took on it on the road. We started pushing the system out there, because we thought it had a lot of value. Last year, we did just under 10,000 fraud alert signups and over 15,000 to date.”
She said that she’s been throughout Cook County, frequenting events such as this one in Maywood, which was actually a regular meeting of the Maywood Senior Club. The Club often features a guest speaker each week. The night before, Yarbrough was in Oak Park and later that night, she was scheduled to visit Monument of Faith in Chicago. She said she often collaborates with Commissioner Larry Rogers and the Cook County Board of Review when doing these outreach events. Recently, the office hired a PR firm to increase the program’s visibility to the millions of other homeowners across the county who don’t know about the system.
But the system is only an aspect of the Recorder’s approach to combating property theft. Yarbrough, a former state representative, has also raised the stakes for anyone caught committing the crime. While she was still in the Illinois General Assembly, Yarbrough said that she helped introduce legislation that would increase the penalty of stealing someone else’s property from a misdemeanor to a felony.
“It kind of digresses from the Recorder’s office, because it’s really an administrative office, but we just kicked it up a notch,” she said of the recent legislation. Currently, the Recorder’s office refers potential fraud cases to other entities, such as the Attorney General’s office. Those entities then choose whether or not to prosecute.
“This is on the same line as identity theft,” Yarbrough said to the rapt audience of seniors. “For most people, your home is your greatest asset and the last thing you need is for somebody who has put their name on it,” she said, after also pointing out other, more limited, cases of fraud.
“There are people called deed re-sellers, who will sale you a deed for $60,” Yarbrough said. “If you want a copy of your deed, you can get a copy from my office for $10. A certified copy is $20. You can probably take the difference and go shopping.”
The Recorder’s warning resonated with Bellwood resident Johnsey Louden, who said that a friend of hers was victimized by property fraud four years ago.
“It really gives you something to think about,” Louden said. “I signed up today, a lot of people did, which is good. You can’t just assume everything is still in order. I bought the house where I live 30 years ago. All kinds of things can happen. Family members can take advantage of other family members. You never know.”
Yarbrough said that her office has been experiencing more and more residents in western Cook County with property fraud-related problems and noted that the best protection against the crime is vigilance and awareness. And the realization that nobody is above a scam artist–not even the Recorder of Deeds.
“It happened to me,” she said. “If it can happen to me and it can happen to Stephanie Neely, it can certainly happen to you.” VFP
For more information on property fraud, to check your own deed status or to signup for the FREE PROPERTY FRAUD ALERT, click here. To obtain a copy of your deed, or file a complaint, visit the Recorder’s satellite office at Maybrook Courthouse, 1500 S. Maybrook Drive, Basement Room 061, Maywood, Illinois 60153.