Berrien County woman falls victim to title fraud
BERRIEN COUNTY, Ind. – A woman in Galien, Michigan falling victim to title fraud. She was making payments on a house only to learn it was secretly sold to someone else.
The woman’s name is Joy. She had a legal land contract with a 91-year-old woman who owns the home. Each month Joy made payments so she could one day own the home herself.
When that day finally came, she found out the title was actually signed over to the 91-year-old’s caregiver and her money was gone.
“I was like ‘why are you making payments to something that is not in your name?’”
Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski met Joy two weeks ago at a show cause hearing because, like many struggling homeowners, Joy was behind on her property taxes.
“It’s an opportunity for people in really desperate situations to who can’t get payment plans to come to talk to us,” Witkowski said.
That’s when he found out Joy didn’t actually own the home.
“It’s a big deal because the biggest asset that most people have is their house,” he said.
Witkowski called the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department right away and an investigation started.
“She was in a land contract with the homeowner and she fulfilled the land contract and she was waiting for the deed and in the meantime, the homeowner did a quick claim deed with her caregiver so that basically she didn’t own it anymore,” Kelly Laesch, the Crime Prevention Coordinator for the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department said.
Like many people who owe back taxes, the 91-year-old told police she was afraid the
the government was going to take the house, so she sold it to her caregiver for $1.
“If you do a quick claim deed and someone signs their name and it’s attested to by notary, they’re not there to judge your competence. You just put your name on it, go file the deed’s office, it can happen fairly easy,” Witkowski said.
And just like that, the title is legally in another person’s name, but in this case, Joy had paid for the house and should have owned it.
“She was owing money for taxes but neither one of them were paying them,” Laesch said.
That’s when the 91-year-old and her caregiver sued Joy.
“She took her to court and there was a judgment against her for money they say she still owed in the land contract and taxes that were past due,” Laesch said.
But the investigation showed Joy did fulfill the land contract and the deed should be hers.
Laesch eventually helped Joy get her home back last Friday.
“Joy has the house now, it’s in her name,” she said.
But it’s just one example of title fraud in the county.
“She was taken advantage of,” she said.
It’s something that isn’t uncommon.
“Kelly calls me on average about once a month where there’s a fraud case going on,” Witkowski said.
Laesch says it’s important for families to monitor the elderly’s finances to keep them from being taken advantage of.
“Double check, what are they spending money on, where’s it going cause they can be using it themselves right writing checks, using debit cards, people on the phone tricking them, people coming to their home tricking them, their caregivers manipulating them,” she said.
Deputy Laesh said she is filing a report Tuesday but it’s up to the prosecutor’s office if any charges will be filed.
If you suspect you or a family member could be targeted by scammers, Adult Protective Services can help. Their number is (574) 235-5092 for St. Joseph County and 855-444-3911 for Michigan.