by: Jessica Gertler
SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — Your home could be stolen without you even knowing it.
It’s a terrifying thought we are hearing about more and more in Shelby County. And it’s not easy, or cheap, to get your home back.
“Anyone can walk into this office and file a claim against your property, and you may not even know. That’s the scary part for me,” Shelby County Register of Deeds Willie Brooks said.
In Parkway Village, a home purchased by truck driver Archie Foster remained in his name until he turned 89 years old. But someone hired to care for him allegedly took Foster’s home out of his name with a quit claim deed.
Foster was in a nursing home in Memphis when his brother in Oklahoma contacted an attorney here, saying he believed someone was taking advantage of his brother.
Gary Jewel now represents Foster. He said soon after he took that call, a lawsuit was filed against Foster’s caretaker and two others.
Court documents allege Foster’s caretaker, who started working for him in 2022, stole more than $200,000.
“She had been paying herself a hefty sum, $1,800 to 2,000 a week,” Jewel said. “At Christmas, she gave herself a lot of big checks. Her name got put on the bank account.”
Jewel said she also persuaded the elderly man to give her power of attorney and then took his home.
In October 2023, a property deed was filed at the Shelby County Register’s Office.
Quit claim deeds are designed as a quick way to transfer property. In this case, it stated Foster was transferring the home he’d owned for five decades to his new caretaker. The paperwork was filled out and approved by a Tennessee notary.
“She shouldn’t have prepared the deed. The notary public, under Tennessee law, are not authorized to prepare the deed,” Jewel said.
Jewel said his elderly client also wouldn’t have been in the right mental state to sign it and doesn’t know if that’s even his signature.
The register’s office wouldn’t have been able to ask questions about the deed. Per Tennessee law, the office cannot refuse the quit claim deed if it’s filled out correctly.
“We are required by state law, that if everything is completed on the form, then we are to record that information in our office,” Brooks explained.
Here is how a quit claim deed works: the form is downloaded, filled out with certain information, signed by both parties, and notarized.
“The notary should be the safeguard. It should validate the information on the quit claim form that everything is accurate and complete,” Brooks said.
It’s a process designed to be easy and typically used between family. It’s tough to undo.
The register’s office cannot reverse the claim. It’s up to the property owner to fight it. Typically, that happens in court and can be costly.
WREG Investigators have been reporting on this very issue for years as real estate fraud continues to rise.
Victims and advocates continue to sound the alarm.
“It’s something that’s happening more and more in Shelby County, and more and more people recognize it can happen to them,” Daniel Irwin of the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South warned a year and a half ago.
In 2022, a Hickory Hill woman was arrested for filing several fraudulent quit claim deeds and reportedly stole several properties.
In December, a man and the notary were arrested for illegally transferring a Binghampton home. Police say the owner couldn’t have signed the quit claim deed, because she was in hospice care in another state.
“They can go out and put a lien on that property. They can borrow from that property without the property owner even knowing,” Brooks said.
Sometimes, they’ll sell or transfer the property to someone else. Many of the victims are elderly and a lot of the properties are unoccupied, blighted or paid off.
Brooks said his office recorded 35,000 quit claim and transfer warranty deeds last year. It’s unclear how many could have been fraudulent.
Brooks said he’s developed a task force that has been meeting regularly to figure out how to combat the fraud. It includes law enforcement, lawmakers and title company representatives.
He’s also encouraging owners to sign up for its new fraud alert program.
“The program is free. The fraud alert is free. What we are doing is being preventative,” he said.
It will immediately alert the owner when a document is filed under their name or business, so they can take action right away.
Brooks said the longer you wait to act on a fraudulent deed, the “more difficult.”
As for Foster’s case, it took a legal action to get his home back. Jewel said a probate judge declared the quit claim deed null and void and ordered Foster’s brother as the conservator.
“I want people to be aware of their elders. Watch out for them,” Jewel said.
Jewel turned over his evidence to Memphis police. We tried to reaching out to the notary and the caretaker but didn’t have any luck. No criminal charges have been filed.
“When the house was finally turned over to us, we went into the house. There’s nothing. There is an old sofa and bed. He had a safe with guns and valuable coins. Gone,” Jewel said.
He said Foster is now getting care at a nursing care facility. His home will be sold to pay for it.
“He cried. He sat there and cried. He has nothing left,” Jewel said.