Scammers Tried to Sell Graceland. How to Prevent Your Home From Being Next. - Kanebridge News
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Scammers Tried to Sell Graceland. How to Prevent Your Home From Being Next.

Even if you don’t lose your property, title fraud can have real consequences

By ROBYN A. FRIEDMAN
Wed, Jun 5, 2024 10:42amGrey Clock 4 min

When a company tried in May to auction off Graceland, the iconic former home of music legend Elvis Presley in Memphis, a Tennessee court stepped in to stop it.

The court stopped the sale because the company that was trying to auction off the property was fake. Also fraudulent were the supporting documents the fraudsters presented that purported to show that Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’s late daughter, had defaulted on a loan they claimed they made to her for which she used Graceland as collateral.

While this audacious and complex attempt at defrauding a famous family made national news, most other cases of attempted title theft or mortgage fraud don’t. But homes such as Graceland, where the original owners are deceased, are popular targets for scammers, according to Victor Petrescu, a real-estate attorney with Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider & Grossman in Miami.

Homes with out-of-state owners, vacant plots of land and investment properties owned by limited liability companies are also particularly vulnerable, he said.

Here’s how it works: A fraudster targets your house and assumes your identity, using tactics similar to identity thieves to acquire your personal information and create fake IDs. He or she then tries to sell it to an unsuspecting buyer by executing a forged deed in your name. An alternative scam is to submit a mortgage application in your name to get cash out of the house.

The good news is that except in very rare circumstances, a fake deed won’t transfer your title, even if it initially gives the appearance of a transfer in public records, nor will a forged mortgage create any obligation for an innocent homeowner to pay. The bad news is that restoring your title and clearing the property of any fraudulent mortgages can be a lengthy and expensive process.

Sarah Frano, a vice president and real-estate fraud expert at First American Title Insurance Co., said there has been a sharp rise in seller impersonation fraud over the past few years, where a fraudster impersonates an owner by forging a deed conveying property to an unsuspecting buyer.

Several factors are driving the increase, including the rising popularity of remote closings and notarisations, where the parties aren’t present in person at the closing table. Home equity, which hit a record $16.9 trillion in the first quarter of 2024, according to data provider Intercontinental Exchange , is also contributing to the incidence of fraud. For scammers, that equity, which can be unlocked by a sale of a home, a cash-out refinance or a second mortgage, is an opportunity to sell the property out from under you or to steal your identity to mortgage your house.

“If you bought a house and have a big mortgage, the chances of it being stolen from you are quite slim,” said Richard Howe, register of deeds of the Northern District of Middlesex County in Lowell, Mass. “The key for this is for the wrongdoers to get a loan against the property or sell it, and nobody’s going to buy a property or put a loan against it if there is a big mortgage on it.”

Petrescu said he’s also seeing a rising number of title theft cases involving investment properties owned by limited liability companies, where a partner who was recently kicked out of the LLC continues to act and executes documents trying to transfer the property when he’s no longer part of the company or authorised to sell it.

Still, the actual risk of losing your home to title theft is quite low. “There would have to be an extreme set of facts showing the owner was aware of the issue and took no action to correct it before that deed could be deemed as valid,” said Petrescu.

But there are ramifications nonetheless. If a homeowner discovers a fraudulent deed or mortgage while applying for a home-equity loan, for example, that could push the loan application back six months or more while title gets cleared, Petrescu said. And, if they are attempting to sell the property, a title company may not want to insure the property if there is a rogue deed recorded in the county records even if it is apparent that it wasn’t a valid transfer. “So, this has real consequences,” he said. “Even if someone is not going to lose title to their property, it could be a huge setback for them.”

Here are some things you can do to avoid becoming the victim of home-title theft.

Be alert to the early signs . After targeting a vulnerable property, a home-title thief will usually try to impersonate you using forged documents, such as a Social Security card or driver’s license. There are telltale signs that someone may be trying to steal your identity. Credit inquiries will show up on a credit report, so be sure to check your credit reports regularly or consider subscribing to one of the paid services that monitors credit on your behalf. You can also freeze your credit, which restricts access to your credit report. If you receive strange bills in the mail or phone calls from lenders you haven’t contacted, or if strangers start asking questions about who owns your vacant vacation home, those can also be signs that home-title theft may be under way.

Monitor your title . Many counties offer free title monitoring services that notify owners if a new document is recorded against their property. In the Northern District of Middlesex County in Lowell, Mass., owners can register up to three residential properties, according to Howe, who noted that in his 29-year career he has only seen one case of title fraud, in January 2024, and that involved a property that was vacant because the owners were deceased. Frano suggests setting up a free Google alert for your property address. That way, if a fraudster lists your property for sale, an alert may help you stop it before it happens.

Buy the right type of title insurance . While lenders require title policies to insure their own interests when a property is mortgaged, it is a good idea to also purchase an owner’s policy when you purchase a house. There are two different types of owners’ policies, and, unfortunately, they are similarly named, which can get confusing. A standard American Land Title Association (ALTA) Owner’s Policy provides coverage only for forgeries that took place before you purchased your home, such as fake deeds in the chain of title before your closing. But this type of policy won’t protect you against forgery occurring after your property purchase. For that, you may want to consider the more comprehensive Homeowner’s Policy of Title Insurance, which does cover forgeries occurring after your closing, according to Steve Gottheim, ALTA general counsel. That enhanced coverage, available in most states, comes at an additional cost, though, which varies based on the location and purchase price of your home. Either policy will cover you for losses you incur due to fraud or forgery, including attorney fees and expenses incurred to clear title, up to the policy limit, but only the Homeowner’s Policy will cover fraud after you purchase the home.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”