And according to state law, Jo Dyson learned, officials couldn’t check the deed for possible fraud or do anything to stop it.
JESSICA GERTLER: The pink and brick building on South Parkway holds meaning.
JO DYSON: So we've had it since 1966.
JESSICA GERTLER: While it sat empty--
JO DYSON: Because my dad passed, my mom passed.
JESSICA GERTLER: Jo Dyson wanted to finally do something with it last summer, or so she hoped.
JO DYSON: When I got ready to do some work and to do some things to it, I found out it wasn't in my name.
JESSICA GERTLER: You heard right. Dyson's property, in the family for decades, no longer belongs to her.
JO DYSON: My whole face fell when I saw that. I did what? I sold my property? No, I didn't.
JO DYSON: Dyson says, without her knowledge, someone went to the Shelby County Register of Deeds Office in March 2020 and handed over this document, a quit claim deed, a fast way to transfer property.
JESSICA GERTLER: The form must be downloaded, printed, and filled out with certain information.
- The legal description, your derivation, the property owner, the property address--
JESSICA GERTLER: --and must be notarized.
SHELANDRA FORD: We have limited rules under the state of Tennessee law.
JO DYSON: County Register Shelandra Ford says that means, per state law, if a deed looks fraudulent, or maybe a signature doesn't look right, they can't ask for an ID or do anything about it.
SHELANDRA FORD: If the document meets all the state requirements, then we have no other choice but to file the deed or the instrument within our office.
JO DYSON: It's so frustrating.
JESSICA GERTLER: In Dyson's case, this form was processed, even though she says that's not her writing nor her signature.
JOYCE BRANCH: Hi.
- I'm looking for Joyce Branch, is that you?
JOYCE BRANCH: Yes.
JESSICA GERTLER: And the woman, Joyce Branch, who you can see notarized the deed, well, she couldn't say it was Dyson's signature either.
JOYCE BRANCH: No, I don't know any of those people that's on there.
JESSICA GERTLER: She told us a family member asked her to notarize some paperwork so he could buy some land. She admitted she notarized the deed before names or signatures were on it, despite that being against the law.
- So you thought he was going to fill it out?
JOYCE BRANCH: Yes.
- Like, what he had told you?
JOYCE BRANCH: Yeah, that's what he told me. And I explained to him my name is on this, this is a legal document, don't put nobody else's name on there. I guess he must have sold them to somebody else, which I explained to him that nobody's name is supposed to go on those papers but your name.
- Was it more than one time that they did that?
JOYCE BRANCH: I think so.
JESSICA GERTLER: Branch's notary license has since expired. Again, she says she never met the man, Charlie Allen, listed on the quit claim deed. We haven't been able to find Allen for his side of the story. Dyson says he was involved in a murder on November 25. Police confirmed a Charlie Allen was killed, but we have not been able to confirm it's the same person. What we do know, on November 11, Allen quit claimed the property to a woman who then quit claimed it a month later to Lacy Collins.
We went to multiple addresses listed under Collins's name, but no one answered the door. Dyson says she contacted Memphis Police and filed this police report. She says she also hired an attorney to help her prove that this property is hers and also get this no trespassing order to make sure nothing else happens to it.
JO DYSON: The law needs to be changed.
JESSICA GERTLER: Are you willing to review it?
ANTONIO PARKINSON: I am definitely willing to review it. This is unbelievable, actually, to me. When you told me what was happening, honestly, it was mind-blowing.
JESSICA GERTLER: Tennessee Representative Antonio Parkinson said he started researching ways to give the register's office more authority to verify property filings, like allowing them to check ID.
ANTONIO PARKINSON: Possibly even 2-step authentication before a change is done to a property.
GA HARDAWAY: Because we are able to do that. Then, we'll try to push something this year.
JESSICA GERTLER: Tennessee Representative GA Hardaway says he's also working with the register's office and other groups to come up with a strategy that includes increasing penalties and awareness.
GA HARDAWAY: We've also got to make it possible for the funding and the authority to be in place for the clerks to be able to catch it on the front end.
JESSICA GERTLER: In the meantime, the register's office launched a fraud program where an owner can sign up to get email alerts when any new document, like a quit claim deed, is recorded. Keep in mind, the office can't stop it from being filed, you would have to notify authorities and then fight it in court, like Dyson is currently doing.
JO DYSON: I'm having to spend money over and over because each time it changed hands, we had to get new papers adding another person.
JESSICA GERTLER: The register's office admits fraud is on the rise but couldn't say how many of the nearly 34,000 property transfers last year were later called into question.
JO DYSON: It's easy money. The law needs to be changed.