The Link Between U.S. Counties
and International Deed Fraud
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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