HOUSTON -- Some homes in Houston may be vulnerable to theft and we're not talking about burglars stealing just your TV or jewelry. We're talking your whole house.
As KHOU 11 News looked into what happened to one Houston woman, it uncovered some serious problems down at the courthouse.
Cheryl Mosley Williams lives in a house in the Brentwood subdivision in southwest Houston. She said she learned the home she thought she owned was now owned by someone else.
"I'm like what the hell," said Williams.
"Oh, it’s absolute theft," Charles Peckham, her attorney, alleged. "It was theft of Miss Williams' house."
Williams said her house was stolen by a high school classmate.
"Joe Hall," she said.
Hall had worked some years ago at a mortgage company in the Galleria area.
"I told him I wanted to take out a small loan and pay what was owed on the house," Williams recalled.
Less than $10,000 was still owed on the home she grew up in, which had been her mother's until her death. So, Williams said she signed some papers with Hall. But were those papers really for a loan to pay off the mortgage?
Not at all, according to her lawyer.
"What happened was Mr. Hall forged a warranty deed, transferring the house from Miss Williams to a company that he had just created," Peckham said.
Williams said she learned what happened when a friend looked up the house on the county's website, HCAD.org, and found Williams was no longer the owner.
"I was very livid," said Williams.
In documents filed with the Harris County District Court as part of Williams' lawsuit against Hall, banks, mortgage and title companies involved in the saga, a signature reading "Cheryl Mosley Williams" can be seen on the deed supposedly giving Hall's company the home. How did that happen?
"We believe that her signature was written on another document and lifted by tape and placed on the warranty deed. Which of course transferred the house, but it wasn't her signature," said Peckham.
If true, it would be the sort of scam that has claimed victims, not just here, but in other states, including Florida. It raises serious questions about safeguards. Are there enough of them in place?
Because after all, when you buy a house, aren't a lot of people supposed to check to make sure everything's legit?
KHOU 11 News went to where those deeds get the official stamp of approval, at the Harris County Civil Courthouse. But we found a problem.
"Any document they submit to us, we legally have to accept," said Stan Stanart, the Harris County Clerk.
Stanart said Texas is one state where, by law, his staff cannot even ask for an ID when someone comes in to transfer a deed. So they don't know who the person really is. Then there are the signatures on the deed that are supposed to have been verified by a notary whose stamp is seen on the deed.
In the Williams case, there's no way to double-check them, said Stanart, because those notaries (who themselves go by name only) don’t have a registration number.
"If it's a Jane Smith, how many Jane Smiths are there, I can't track it," said Stanart.
It's a system full of holes, Stanart said.
But in coming months, he said he'll be working to recommend changes to the state law. For now, their main deterrent is a big sign telling scammers that forging documents is a felony.
Meanwhile, Williams is trying to keep her house.
"This is the house I grew up in,” she said as she sat in the living room. In what has become a complicated legal case, she is fighting giant Deutsche Bank, which ended-up holding the mortgage.
The mortgage is not in her name because Joe Hall allegedly used the supposedly fraudulent deed to get an acquaintance to buy the house with an $85,000 loan which was never paid back, according to court documents.
Hall remains the mystery man. His former employer, Gateway Mortgage, told KHOU 11 News it has no idea where he is, but that whatever he might have done in this case, it wasn't authorized by Gateway Mortgage.
Deutsche Bank said Williams is not entitled to the house. The bank's attorney, when asked if he believes Williams was duped, said, "I won't comment on that."
Williams and her attorney contend she most certainly was duped. The case is set to go to trial in Houston later this year.