County database fights real estate fraud
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- May 17, 2016
When a single father and ex-Marine in Oakland, Mich., went to pay back taxes on his home, he was told he didn’t have to -- because he no longer owned the property. A victim of real estate fraud, he went to court to get his house back.
That case shed light on a more widespread problem in which a blank deed is filled out claiming that the property owner is transferring the property to someone else. Once the document is notarized and a fee is paid to the recorder of deeds, the document is part of the official record of ownership. Armed with a fraudulent deed, con artists can take out big mortgages and disappear. Or fraudsters can file a lien without the legitimate owners' knowledge, get a default judgment in court and walk away with the deed to the property.
Lisa Brown, Oakland County's register of deeds, wanted to stop this kind of real estate fraud. She contracted with Xerox to help develop the Property Records Notification (PRN) system, in which users create accounts, flag keywords they want to monitor and then create an alert to receive email alerts when changes are recorded on the properties they are tracking. It’s the first of its kind, she said.
PRN, which went live in October 2015, sits on top of a Super Index, a searchable database built by Xerox and Google that has been in place at the county deeds office since 2014. Every day when officials scan new documents into the Super Index, PRN automatically matches requested search terms to the words in the documents. The index searches over 12 million documents dating back to 1964.
Users sign up for a free account through the Register of Deeds website and enter their search criteria, which can be property-specific (such as a house number or homeowner name) or more general, such as a street name or the term “death certificates.” When PRN picks up a new record that contains the associated search term, it notifies the account holders who specified that term.
“Property Records Notification was born, I guess, out of frustration for how things were done,” Brown said.
Before PRN, county residents could sign up for quarterly email notifications about any newly recorded information associated with their property. But that often returned irrelevant information in an untimely fashion.
“In a county of 1.2 million people, you can guess that I’m not the only Lisa Brown in Oakland County, Mich.,” Brown said. “Every few months I’d receive a bunch of emails, but none of them had anything to do with me or my property.”
To get fresher, more specific information, people could search the Super Index themselves, but it returned only information that had already been recorded. Because it doesn’t take long for property to be stolen, Brown wanted something that would notify users of changes in near real time.
“If I sign up today and put in 123 Main St., nothing will come up,” Brown said. But moving forward, when there is any action relating to that property, PRN will send an email. “The system is triggered when it picks out that search term and will push out an email to you.”
PRN is essentially a mail technology sitting on top of the database Xerox created for the county, said Louis Schiavone, managing director for Xerox Local Government Solutions. The system is accessible via desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones -- anything with an Internet connection.
The county uses a Google appliance to store the information. Because it’s open to the public, the main security element comes in protecting the email addresses and passwords of people who set up PRN accounts, Brown said.
Although the main purpose of PRN is to alert homeowners to forged deeds or fraudulent liens recorded on their properties, Brown said the system has other uses, too. For instance, if a homeowner is behind on homeowner association dues, that will get recorded and an alert could go out. The process is the same when someone pays off a mortgage. “It’s not just about fraud but whatever is happening on your property or whoever’s property you want to monitor,” Brown said.
What’s more, PRN has potential as a tool for law enforcement, she added. For instance, if someone is suspected of deed fraud, police can sign up for an alert whenever a specific name appears, and when PRN records an action associated with that name, the police get an alert.
PRN’s benefits to the public are obvious, but it’s also helping Brown run her office more efficiently. “When people are empowered to get this information themselves, they don’t need to be calling my office … or asking staff to check on the title to their property,” she said. “They’re going to know when something has been recorded.”
Schiavone estimates that PRN saves “a year or two years just in labor alone that gets avoided by using the system,” he said. But “I wouldn’t even know how to put a number on what happens in an actual fraud case where people lose money or have to spend money to gain their properties back.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.