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.
“We didn’t have any idea of what was going on,” James Cook said. “We had no idea.”
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.
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.
Investigators with 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 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.
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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.