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News For Public Officials . . . Get the Newsletter - It's FREE
The Link Between U.S. Counties and International Deed Fraud

Investigative report by David Bloys, News for Public Officials

February, 16th, 2006

 

James Cook's job had taken him to Florida and his wife Paula was in Oklahoma to care for her sick mother when someone used  Mrs. Cook's signature and driver's license number to steal their home in Frisco, Texas. The couple didn't learn of the theft until they returned to check on the house and found someone had changed the locks. The man who came to the door informed them he had given $12,000 as a down payment to someone named Carlos Ramirez.

 

Police in Denton County, Texas reported the  fraud as a new twist on  identity theft where criminals used a copy of a signature and  driver's license number to file a fraudulent deed with the Denton County Clerk's office. If Sergeant  Gina McFarlin knew where the thieves might have stolen the sensitive information, she didn't say.

 

The Cooks went to the Denton County Courthouse to check their warranty deed and  were shown the deed in Paula Cook's maiden name transferring the property to Carlos Ramirez. It looked like Paula's signature but she knew she had never signed the document.
 

The Cook's were not aware that Denton County was publishing Paula's driver's license and signature on the County Clerk's website. They were told they must go to court to prove that they are the rightful owners of their own house.

"We didn't have any idea of what was going on," James Cook said. "We had no idea."

 

The theft of the Cook home seems nearly identical to the rampant deed fraud Florida homeowners have suffered for nearly a year.  The Florida crimes involve hundreds of absentee owners whose signatures have been copied from documents published online by county agencies. Along with the signatures, the thieves are hijacking notary seals from the county websites. A signature and notary seal electronically pasted to a fraudulent deed are all the 21st Century criminal  needs. Two clips, two pastes and your home  becomes his. 

 

Frisco Police told Stever Stoler of WFAA TV,  "While identity theft is on the rise, they have never seen a case quite like this one and that it is making it very difficult to determine how and why it happened. They believe the culprits obtained Cook's social security number, driver's license number and a copy of her signature.

 

News for Public Officials found several copies of Mrs. Cook’s signature and her driver's license number on the Denton County Clerk's subscription Website. All of the documents are filed under her maiden name including the deed transferring the couple’s $300,000 home to Ramirez. Her Social Security number was not found on the county site, but it wasn't needed to file the bogus deed on June 7, 2005.

 

The document that displays Mrs. Cook's driver's license number was filed three days after the bogus deed so it may not have been available to the criminals on the county site before the home was stolen. A driver's license number is not required for warranty deeds filed in Texas, but are  ioften used as a means of identification by notaries commissioned by the state. If the thieves had previously obtained Mrs. Cook's driver's license number, they might have produced a bogus driver's license for identification purposes.  Fake driver's licenses produced by foreign counterfeiters are sold on the streets of America for as little as sixty dollars.

 

The thieves who stole the Cook home didn't need to use a fake driver's license to convince a state-commissioned notary of their identity. In fact, they didn't need a notary at all; only a copy of the seal. It is very easy to hijack notary seals and signatures from the county  Website and paste them into any document. The thieves would have wanted a seal that was current enough to match the file date, preferably one from a foreign notary or one whose commission was about to expire.

 

County clerks are required to verify that documents are signed and notarized before accepting them for filing. Some states require notaries to use embossed seals that leave an indentation on documents. Without the indentation, it is very difficult to distinguish between an original seal and a copy. Texas stopped requiring embossed seals when some people complained the embossed seals were difficult to copy.  Most clerks had already solved the problem with a simple, low-tech procedure. Crossing a graphite bar over the raised seal made it visible to photocopy machines. The technique left no confusion between which document was an original and which was a copy.

 

Florida attorney Ira Silver says he has no idea how his notary stamp ended up on a fake deed filed in Lee County, Florida by a firm called Zubrick, Inc. "That's not me," Silver said when The News-Press showed him a bogus deed bearing his seal.  "I keep my notary locked in my office. I wonder how they got my name?"

 

Investigators in Florida suspect that copies of notary seals were copied  from county Websites to steal hundreds of homes and vacant lots. Most of the victims were absentee and foreign owners including citizens who had died long before their signatures appeared on the fraudulent deeds.

 

Florida State Sen. Dave Aronberg, calling for tougher laws, said, "It's one thing if these guys are committing crimes," Aronberg said.  "It's another thing if the state is facilitating it. The state shouldn't be making it easy for this kind of thing to go on."
 

Almost every county in Florida makes the documents containing signatures, notary seals and other sensitive information available over the Internet. The signatures of Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his wife are readily available online along with the signatures of the couple who bought their home. The signatures appeared above the social security numbers of all participants in a Quit Claim Deed. Governor Bush had his Social Security number redacted from official online display last year. The signatures and notary seals remain and are all an international criminal would need to file a Quit Claim deed of their own. The Social Security numbers Governor  Bush redacted from the official site are currently displayed on seven unofficial Websites including two that originate from foreign countries.

 

At least three notaries in Belgium said their signatures and seals were forged on deeds filed in Lee County, Florida by USA Real Estate Solutions Inc. of Punta Gorda. Notary Lucien Robberts of Belgium says his name, signature and a phony notary seal were put on deeds. Notary Jean-Paul Declairfayt said he never notarized a 2004 deed with the signature of Albert Delvaux of Andoy-Wierde, who died in 1998.  The Belgium National Chamber of Notaries is investigating.

 

Police in Denton County may want to question former notary Tovia Harris of Dallas. Her seal was used to acknowledge Mrs. Cook's signature on the bogus deed. Harris's commission expired two weeks after the deed was filed.  A search of the Texas Secretary of State records indicates her commission was not renewed.

 

We may never know if the Denton County Website aided the thieves who stole the Cook home, but it seems clear the County Clerk offers links to everything the thieves needed. Determining who might be responsible for providing information over the Internet that would  have aided the thieves is not as easy.

 

Who Owns The County Web sites?

 

News for Public Officials attempted to determine who owned the Websites that provide Denton County signatures, driver's license numbers and notary seals via the Internet. We started with Denton County's official site. After verifying the authenticity of the site, we chose one of the links offered. The link leads down a path to a confusing and often deceptive maze of conflicting sites, copyrights, site registrations, terms of service agreements, privacy statements, one-way streets and blind alleys.

 

The official site for the Denton County Clerk is owned and operated by Denton County. The county's official seal can be seen in upper left corner of the screen. The county claims the copyright for the site and the address that shows in the browser window is registered to the county. 

 

Tiny signs and links at the bottom of the screen assure visitors of privacy, legality, and accessibility. The ICRA label assures parents that the site is safe for young children. The Denton County Department of Information Services maintains the site and claims responsibility in the accessibility and privacy notices. Denton County takes responsibility in the legal notice. Links spanning the top of the Website offer visitors a familiar way to find county departments, services and the way home should one become lost. On the right, there is a cheerful photo of Cynthia Mitchell, the Denton County Clerk reassuring visitors they have come to the right place. Department links along the left side of the site offer twenty possible destinations.

 

Choosing the  Real Property Records Search  link  will take  visitors down an unmarked  one-way street to a site that while appearing official, is not registered to, or copyrighted by the county. The link leads to a banner that welcomes visitors to "Denton County's Real Property Official Records Search.” The reassuring photo of the county clerk is still there along with a photo of the courthouse at the top of the screen.  The official seal of Denton County is gone. The tiny copyright notice at the bottom of the screen has changed and the legal and accessibility policies have disappeared, leaving only a link to the Terms of Service agreement and new privacy policy.

 

The browser window indicates visitors are no longer on the Denton County site, but have arrived at www.texaslandrecords.com. Any attempt to back out of this site will be fruitless. The visitor will find his browser's back arrow button no longer functions.  Selecting the familiar back arrow link will only bring the visitor full circle and return the visitor to Texas Land Records. The site is copyrighted by Affiliated Computer Services, Inc., but registered to Government Records Services, Inc.

 

The tiny terms of service (TOS) link will open a page titled County Member Agreement where the visitor must agree to abide by the rules of Denton Grantor/Grantee Land Services, whoever they are. This name was found nowhere else on the site.

 

If visitors agree to "provide true, accurate, current and complete information about yourself ", the company promises to provide users with access to a rich collection of online resources, such as governmental document viewing which they do not guarantee to be timely, secure, or error-free.

 

The TOS admonishes international users to comply with all local rules regarding online conduct and acceptable content. It isn't clear if "local rules' mean rules in Denton County or Bangladesh or just anywhere.  Specifically, international users agree to comply with all applicable laws regarding the transmission of technical data exported from the United States or the country in which you reside. It is unlikely that the private information of Denton County residents would qualify as "technical data" or that allowing foreign nationals to remote view "governmental documents" would be considered export.

 

 News for Public Officials has found twenty three of the two hundred and fifty four county clerks  in Texas offer links from official county sites to commercial sites to display the documents of private citizens. A simple Google search for "Denton County Public Records" shows thousands of  companies offering the private records of Denton County citizens.

 

Last August Mr. Cook told Steve Stoler, with WFAA -TV , "he feels something is wrong with a system where someone can go to the Denton County Courthouse and fraudulently change the name on a deed so easily without the rightful owners even knowing." Wherever James and Paula buy their next home, we can only hope it is outside the jurisdiction of the online counties.

 

It's time for our elected officials to accept responsibility for protecting the records we are required to entrust  to with them.  
 

 

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