Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough was new to her job when she spotted the problem: people getting in line to file fraudulent property deeds and other documents at the county office. And not a thing Yarbrough and her staff could do about it.
By law, the Recorder's office could not verify or authenticate documents -- it could only file them for the constituents who pay the approximately $40 fee. And the shenanigans that can result from fraudulent filings often involve high-stakes items: homes.
"To steal a home, all you have to do is doctor some paperwork up and photoshop it, bring it to the recorder's office, record it and voila -- you own a home. And it happens, right here in this office," Yarbrough said. "When I walked into this office, I knew this was happening ... and I decided I couldn't just sit idly by."
Yarbrough launched a three-pronged attack: she petitioned the legislature for more power for her and other Recorders' offices to be able to stop suspicious filings, she launched a free property alert system at cookrecorder.com, and brought in a national expert to teach her employees about the crime often referred to as "paper terrorism."
"They're bullies, they're brazen, they think that nothing can touch them, they think they're entitled to everything," Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League says of the sovereign citizens often behind this crime. Sovereign citizens are an extreme, anti-government faction known for tactics that include filing inordinate numbers of documents to intentionally overwhelm a government office.
Pitcavage defines paper terrorism as the use of bogus legal documents or the misuse of legal documents for the purpose of harassing, intimidating, and retaliating against anyone who has irritated a sovereign. "For example, I'm a sovereign citizen and I feel you have trespassed upon me in some way. I file a $25 million lien against your home and you can't sell that home. Your title is clouded and you have to go to court, spend a lot of time, money and effort. That's the essence of paper terrorism, using our open government as a weapon against the government and its citizens."
Sovereign citizens are not the only faction connected to this crime. The man arrested and convicted in a Chicago case posed as a government official, forged documents and tried to 'flip' the home before its owners were tipped off that he'd clouded the title and changed the locks to their vacant property. An eagle-eyed neighbor provided the tip that led to the man's arrest.
If the crime sounds far-fetched, talk to City of Chicago Treasurer Stephanie Neely.
"This is a kind of crime that I never imaged could happen," Neely said.
Neely was at work the day her son called to ask her why she had changed the lock on her Kenwood home. As the details in her case emerged, Neely says she soon learned a stranger had filed fraudulent deeds on both her and her adjoining neighbor's properties.
"I'm literally minding my own business, and I get this call -- 'What do you mean someone's changed the name on my deed?'" Neely said.
Neely says with the help of Chicago police and some quick-thinking neighbors, the person trying to take over their homes was arrested and removed. But the fact they got so far stunned her.
"Yes, I tell people it can happen to me, and I am a financial professional! People never check their deed. Now I tell people, check your deed, check your deed, check your deed!" Neely said.
And doing that just got easier in many counties. While law enforcement and Recorder's Offices are still learning the hallmarks of the crime described as fast-growing by the FBI, homeowners can now protect their properties going forward.
Many counties across the country, including Cook and DuPage, now offer a free property fraud alert system, which notifies a registered homeowner if any activity is recorded on their property account. The system requires a Property Identification Number(PIN)to launch it. But before taking this proactive step, authorities say, you need to see what is currently on your deed.
"If you think you own the home, you need to check the deed," Yarbrough told NBC5 Investigates. "How can you check the deed for free? You can just go online, put your pin number in and see if there's anything on that chain of title that doesn't belong to you."