The Maricopa County Recorder's Office is launching a new alert system to fight a rising number of fraud schemes in which homes are sold out from under property owners, officials said.
The new system, which has been in the works since last summer, comes just a few months after the passage of a new state law requiring all of Arizona's counties to offer similar services by 2025. That legislation was sponsored by Arizona Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, who told her fellow lawmakers that using such systems to notify homeowners was "a no-brainer" and "win-win."
With its alerts for property owners, Maricopa County will join jurisdictions across the country aiming to battle a national increase in title theft, made easier than ever by electronic filings and a tight real estate market with desperate buyers less likely to ask too many questions.
It will be the third county in Arizona to take the step, after Pinal and Yavapai counties, both of which began providing opt-in alerts to property owners before the new law's passage.
Here's what you need to know about Maricopa County's new alert system and deed fraud in Arizona.
How does title theft work?
A house title signifies legal ownership of a property. By forging the deed to a home, a fraudster can illegally transfer ownership of a home into their name and claim they hold title to it.
Then, they can sell the home and take the cash before the buyer catches onto the scam. Or, they might take out loans against the property they won't pay back, getting the real homeowners and the lender into a financial mess.
How common is title theft?
Maricopa County Director of Recording Leslie Hoffman said she started noticing a rise in title cases about five years ago.
"People get smarter and think of different ways to make money," she said.
In 2018, a man was arrested after officials said he forged deeds to numerous homes that had been foreclosed or were owned by deceased or elderly individuals, including 13 in Maricopa County.
In 2021, Scottsdale Police arrested a 30-year-old Californian for stealing a home after an Arizona woman discovered the house, which belonged to her deceased father, was no longer in his name. The home had been sold to Zillow, which later returned the deed to the deceased man's family, according to reporting by Arizona's Family.
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And last year, the Arizona Attorney General's Office issued a warning to homeowners after investigators noticed "a disturbing trend" of dozens of complaints of title theft from across the state.
In Arizona, county recorders have a statutory duty to record any document that is presented with the necessary fields filled out and the proper payment, Hoffman said.
County assessors are tasked with transferring titles in response to newly recorded deeds, and their staff usually will check that the name of the grantor on the deed matches the name of the property owner. But they generally don't analyze signatures on documents or call homeowners directly to determine whether a deed is fraudulent, Hoffman said.
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That makes title theft hard to stop — unless homeowners notice a fraudulent document when it's filed and take quick steps to correct it.
"If you know right away, you can start action before you're getting those foreclosure notices or before someone is knocking on your door going, 'Oh, I bought this house,'" Hoffman said. "Those bad actors are going to get caught quicker as well."
Am I at risk?
According to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, title fraud is most commonly seen with:
Homes owned by corporations or people who live outside Arizona.
Homes owned by a person who recently died.
Officials say fraud is less common when homeowners live at their home full time and hold a mortgage.
How does Maricopa County's new title alert system work?
With the new system, homeowners can opt to receive alerts whenever a document is recorded that mentions their name, Hoffman said.
To sign up, homeowners must create an account on the Maricopa County Recorder's Office website with a valid email address. Then, they can enter personal or business names to track. After subscribing to the system, they'll receive email notifications each time any of those names appear in a newly recorded document and a link to view a PDF of the filing.
Maricopa County built its new system in-house rather than paying for a pre-designed service. That means it'll have several security features that other counties' systems don't, Hoffman said, including requiring users to verify their emails upon signing up for alerts.
The system is free for anybody to use, and there's no limit on how many names one account can track, meaning homeowners can put in name variations or track several individuals simultaneously, Hoffman said.
Homeowners can track first and last names only, without middle initials, she said. But homeowners with common names won't receive constant notifications because the system will only send one email notification per day with all new documents that triggered an alert.
And, even for the John Smiths and Jane Does of Maricopa County, document recordings aren't constant, Hoffman said.
"Our IT department did some research and used John Smith and the more common names," she said. "And they said, 'Gosh, since the first of the year, there's been eight.'"
What about other counties' systems?
Pinal and Yavapai counties' title alert systems are also free to residents and work similarly to the one available in Maricopa County.
Pinal County's title alert system was started in 2021 and has about 3,840 subscribers. The county has a rapidly expanding population of more than 450,000. Residents can sign up for alerts through the Pinal County Recorder's Office.
Yavapai County's system, launched in December 2019, has roughly 2,540 subscribers. Nearly 250,000 people live in the county. Homeowners can sign up for alerts through the Yavapai County Recorder's Office.
All counties must begin offering similar systems by Jan. 1, 2025, according to state law.
What are other ways to prevent title theft?
Property owners who live in counties that currently don't offer a title alert system should periodically check the county recorder and the assessor's website to ensure that information related to their home is accurate, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
What happens if I'm a victim?
Hoffman said homeowners who believe they may be victims of deed forgery should immediately contact local law enforcement.
Officers will work with the county recorder to get copies of the fraudulent documents and other evidence, such as video footage or credit card details. Often, they'll partner with the Arizona Attorney General's Office to investigate and prosecute the case.
"We try to give them as much information as we can so that they can have a very thorough investigation," Hoffman said.
Homeowners may also need to file documents testifying that paperwork previously recorded in their name was fraudulent and hire an attorney to help sort through legal and financial details.
Sasha Hupka covers Maricopa County, Pinal County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic. Do you have a tip to share? Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Amid a rise in title theft, Maricopa County launches new alert system