MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It’s relatively easy for someone to steal your house.
Although filing a fraudulent property transfer is a Class E Felony in Tennessee, it is a crime that is rarely prosecuted.
It’s almost never prosecuted in Shelby County, despite there being more than 7,500 fraudulent property transfers in the county since 2018, according to Shelby County Register of Deeds Shelandra Y. Ford.
Once someone “steals” your house, the burden is on you to “take it back” through the court system.
“They actually have to prove that they’re the rightful owner,” Ford said. “And the judge has to right or overturn it. It can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to do so.”
The problem is twofold:
- Weak state laws and an unwillingness to prosecute these kinds of cases.
- The ease with which someone can file a fraudulent property transfer, usually done through an instrument called a quitclaim at the Register of Deeds office.
If someone forges a property owner’s name and transfers the property to themself then has the document notarized, all it would take for the filing to become an official record is a $12 filing fee.
“If it’s legible and it’s notarized, we have to record those,” Ford said. “And we don’t know offhand that it’s a fraudulent ordeal until that homeowner or that victim comes about and says, ‘someone has stolen my property.’ We have no way of knowing that.”
Eighty-six-year-old Shirley London said that’s exactly what happened to her.
She said a family member tried to pay the taxes on her house in February, only to learn that someone else’s name was on the deed to the house at 1041 Belevedere in Memphis.
Records at the Register of Deeds office in Shelby County show that in April of 2021, Mrs. London transferred the property to a man named Lorenzo Bonds. The transfer was notarized by a woman named Phylantyniese Lashunda Stone.
London, a retired schoolteacher, said she has no idea who these people are.
Her friend and de facto caretaker, Tabitha Jones, said when the family learned that Bonds’ name was on the title, they called the police, but nothing happened.
“A detective told us there was nothing they really could do,” Jones said. “So we’ve been waiting, and I’ve been working really hard since February since we learned that news Shirley no longer owned her property.”
“And we’re just going in circles right now and just trying to figure out how someone, a stranger, is allowed to come in with no identification and able to go to the register days and just take possession of an elderly 86-year-old lady’s property,” Jones said.
While London’s home is currently “officially” owned by Lorenzo Bonds, a judge can remove his name from the title and reverse the quitclaim deed if it’s shown that the filing was fraudulent.
This requires London to take legal action, which she said she could not afford, but she might not have a choice since the Shelby County District Attorney’s office has only prosecuted three of these cases in three years.
“In three years, law enforcement has referred three defendants to us for prosecution under the fraudulent deeds statute,” said Amy Weirich, Shelby County District Attorney General. “Not many cases are prosecuted under that statute because law enforcement does not get many cases to begin with.”
“It is also important to remember that we will charge the most serious crime that applies to the alleged conduct. The fraudulent deeds statute is only an E felony. So if the conduct fits forgery, theft, burglary, or other such charges, that is the path we will take,” she said.
Ford said that unless state law changes and local police and prosecutors prioritize fraudulent quitclaim deed filings, this crime will continue spreading across Shelby County and Tennessee.
Recent efforts in the state legislature to strengthen the fraudulent deed statute have stalled in committee.
Here is a link to the fraud alert too for Shelby County.
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