What do I need to know about real estate title fraud?

The focus of the columns this month will relate to fraud, in light of March being Fraud Prevention Month. Last week, I wrote about mortgage fraud – something we unfortunately hear too often about. As promised, today’s column will focus on title fraud, which is a type of identity theft that has recently received considerable media coverage.

So, if you are wondering what title fraud specifically entails, it is essentially when another individual sells your property, or registers a lien or mortgage on your property, without your knowledge or authorization. It usually begins with identity theft, which may happen if someone takes your personal information and impersonates you. Something to bear in mind is that identity theft scammers often target absent property owners, elderly homeowners, or owners who have completely paid off their mortgages. Although they are the more common targets, scammers don’t discriminate and could come after anyone.

This is of course quite concerning given that a homeowner can fall victim to such fraud, be left with a substantial mortgage on their property or worse, even end up with someone else living in, and owning their home. That is why it is crucial for you to take steps to protect yourself.

If you are in the market to purchase a home, I would highly recommend that you seek the expertise of a lawyer who is insured to practice real estate law. Besides reviewing the fine print, review the property’s title to confirm ownership, and answering any questions you may have, they can also walk you through the benefits of purchasing title insurance. This can offer protection from title fraud, among other things.

As well, here are some more practical steps you can take to protect your identity and detect potential scammers.

    • Frequently examine your credit card, bank and other financial statements for transactions that you may have not authorized.
    • Every year, review the information in your credit report (which you can obtain through Equifax Canada or TransUnion Canada).
    • Be mindful of your billing cycles, and if your bills don’t arrive on time, contact a customer service representative.
    • Never share your personal or financial information over the telephone, via email or online unless you initiated the conversation or can confirm who contacted you.
    • Shred all financial documents before you discard them.
    • Be exceptionally cautious with your Social Insurance Number (SIN) because it’s a valuable piece of personal identification that criminals may want.

Having said all that, being asked to show photo identification by a real estate agent before visiting a home for a showing is standard practice. However, please note that your SIN will only be requested in exceptional situations. If you are asked for it, please consult with your lawyer before sharing it.

If you believe that you, or somebody you know has experienced real estate fraud, contact the Real Estate Council of Ontario at 1-800-245-6910. I would also suggest that you reach out to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501, and your local police service.

If you have a question for Joe about the home buying or selling process, please email information@reco.on.ca.

This column is for general information purposes only and is not meant as legal or professional advice on real estate transactions.

Joseph Richer is Registrar of the Real Estate Council of Ontario (RECO). He is in charge of the administration and enforcement of all rules that govern real estate professionals in Ontario. You can find more tips at reco.on.ca, follow on Twitter @RECOhelps or on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/RECOhelps.

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