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Thieves are stealing homes in Georgia: How they're getting away with it, and how you can protect yourself

An 11Alive investigation finds the hard truth is when it comes to stealing a home, it’s not that difficult.

ATLANTA — Thieves are stealing Homes nationwide through identity fraud, and it's happening in Atlanta, where the market is hot. But there are ways to protect yourself from this crime.  

“Prime property, prime property,” Leonard Beckett said about his home in the West End neighborhood.  

“My grandmother purchased the house for $6,000 in 1970. The house is now worth as is without the remodeling about $280,000,” he said.  

Once the renovations are done, he estimates that value will jump to $700,000. But a few years ago, someone tried to steal the home from his grandmother by trying to pay her taxes. It was the first step fraudsters took to try and steal her deed. 

Credit: WXIA

Beckett said they failed, but his grandmother would have lost everything if they had succeeded. 

”Someone would have been over here trying to evict her from her house that she’s owned since 1970,” he said.  

How it happens 

This crime isn’t new, but the FBI sent a recent warning. Here’s how it happens: Con artists pick a house, assume the homeowner's identity with fake identification, forge signatures on official paperwork and file it. Then, they own the home. 

Credit: WXIA

Fulton County Clerk Cathelene Robinson said there aren’t records of how often this is happening in her county, but it is happening. That’s why Fulton County launched a program called R.E.A.A.C.T.

“It allows you the opportunity to react if there is something filed against your property," Robinson said. "If you don’t have this tool, and something is filed in our office, you will not have the ability to react if something is filed."

Robinson said it works like alerts for suspicious spending on credit cards. Once the property is registered online with the county, the owner would get an alert any time someone tries to file something tied to that home. 

There are hundreds of thousands of homes in Fulton County. So far, only 354 properties are registered.  

“We’re hoping that this story with your help will actually increase the numbers because it is a very small number of people who have registered,” Robinson said.  

She said the program works. It’s already sent 94 filing alerts. 

"The clerk has to record it"

“You can just come in and say I’m the owner, and here’s my ID that says I’m the owner,” Ned Blumenthal said, an attorney and partner with Weissman Law.

Blumenthal said if a home is paid off, there is no mortgage company scammers have to get through. They have to find a way to obtain the deed. What makes things even easier for con artists is the law.  

Credit: WXIA

“As long as you have a deed that’s properly notarized and been witnessed, it’s got original signatures things like that, then as long as you pay the money, the clerk has to record it,” Blumenthal said.

That means if someone can falsify documents and bring them to the clerk’s office, they can obtain the deed. In Georgia, the clerk has no legal reason to refuse it.  

Blumenthal said Georgia likely would never change its laws because that would put a lot of burden on homeowners.  

“The tradeoff is that every homeowner has to provide a lot of information,” Blumenthal said. 

Protecting your home

Instead, he echoed the county’s message: Sign up for R.E.A.A.C.T. That’s what Beckett did.  

“It’s really helpful," he said. "Gave me peace of mind.”  

Credit: WXIA

Peace of mind in an increasingly expensive and competitive housing market is priceless. 

Read more and sign up for Fulton county's R.E.A.C.C.T. program on their website. 

If your county doesn't offer this program, Blumenthal said there are warning signs to look out for. 

He said if tax bills or utility bills stop showing up, those are potential warning signs. He also suggested that homeowners check the deed records once or twice a year to see if anyone has filed anything related to their property.

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