Kent Recorder of Deeds candidates spar over title theft prevention

DOVER — The alleged danger Kent County residents face from title fraud is a quickly emerging bone of contention in the county’s Recorder of Deeds race.

Democrat incumbent Betty Lou McKenna — seeking her fifth term — says plainly “it just can’t happen here.”

The Republican candidate, Eugenia Thornton, who has been Kent County Planning Commissioner for nearly 12 years, says the county needs to be proactive in protecting taxpayers from title fraud.

According to a 2008 FBI brief, title fraud (or house stealing) can be perpetrated by someone who’s stolen someone’s personal information, filled out property transfer forms and, after forging signatures and seals, registered the deed with the proper authorities.

Betty Lou McKenna

The FBI brief points out that, at the time, title fraud was “not too common.”

Ms. McKenna says that although she’s heard about isolated incidents of the practice, she believes Kent County’s Recorder of Deeds office is secure because several layers of checks exist before titles even arrive to be recorded.

“I’ve read about there being a few of these incidents up in New York, but that was about four years ago and I haven’t heard anything since,” she said. “Here? That’s just not possible in my office. The majority of our documents are filed by attorneys and mortgage companies. We’re a library and we accept anything that is signed and notarized.

“All of the deeds that could possibly transfer into someone’s name illegally have already been searched by a title searcher before we get them. That anyone could take someone’s home through a deed filed in this office? It just can’t happen.”

Unconvinced, Ms. Thornton said that “seals and stamps can be forged.”

“I’m not saying that the recorder’s office knowingly records any titles that don’t have the appropriate seals on them. The problem is that they can’t know if they were forged,” she said.

“The deeds office isn’t required by law to check the validity of these documents. Sure, they’re subject to the searches of title companies and in Delaware all real estate transactions have to have an attorney involved. But that doesn’t mean these things can’t be forged.”

Ms. Thornton claims the breach last year of Equifax, the large consumer credit reporting agency, may result in an increase in these types of fraud.

“When they were breached, all sort of private data like names, credit card numbers, mortgage numbers and more got onto the dark web,” she said. “Since 2017, these crimes have been on the rise because bad guys know how to forge documents.”

Eugenia Thornton

Ms. Thornton also said that in March, Experian, another large consumer credit reporting agency, listed Delaware as third on its list of eight states where identity theft is most likely.

“I’m not saying that title theft is happening here yet. It may be. But it’s happening all over the country,” said Ms. Thornton. “There was recently a big case in Montgomery, Maryland, where seven brokers were buying and selling houses that weren’t theirs. It’s timely that we make preparations for this.”

To combat the alleged threat, Ms. Thornton says that although the county isn’t currently under any obligation to prevent title fraud, she’s attempting to seek out a recording platform that provided current title holders with an update every time a change was made to their title so they can quickly spot any suspicious behavior.

“We could do more to alert the public too about what they can be doing to protect themselves and their titles,” she said.

According to LifeLock, the large identity theft protection company, inquiring about the legitimacy of a deed isn’t often the function of a registry of deeds office. LifeLock recommends title holders protect themselves with the following precautions:

• Monitor credit reports

• Occasionally check the status of the deed

• Consider buying an owner’s title insurance policy

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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