When Jon Thomas returned to Cleveland to bury his mother, he thought that was the worst of it. Then, as CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston reports, he drove by her house and discovered a stranger was living there.
"When you find people in your house, you expect to call police, come down, take the people out, arrest them and be happy," he says. But, as it turns out, he couldn't do any of that.
According to official records, he didn't own the house. It had been stolen soon after his parents moved into a nursing home and getting it back wouldn't be easy. CBS News flew Thomas to Shaker Heights from his home in New York to recount his ordeal.
"First of all, they look at me like I'm crazy," he says. "Then they say, 'What?'
"That's the one word everyone says, 'What? What do you mean stolen? You can't steal a house!'"
Even his lawyer was skeptical.
"When he approached me with a story of, 'My mom's house has been stolen,' frankly, I said to myself, 'Maybe this guy doesn't understand how real estate works,'" says Thomas' attorney Dean Boland. "That can't quite be."
But they soon discovered not only how the house was snatched, but how easy it was to do.
"The key documents were a fake ID card, a power of attorney and a quit claim deed ... literally three pieces of paper," says Boland.
That's the beauty of this fraud. Scam artists look for empty homes then obtain a blank deed from any office supply store. They fill it out, forge the signature, have it notarized and file it. At that point, the house is considered officially sold.
That's what happened to Thomas. A woman claiming to be his sister - he's an only child - had a fake power of attorney notarized. She then filed papers transferring the house to a new owner.
"Anyone with ill intent could actually fraudulently transfer property from an honest owner to a dishonest owner, without the honest owner even knowing it," says Cuyahoga County Recorder Patrick O'Malley.