You may have seen ads for the anti-fraud service Home Title Lock on national TV, heard them on talk radio, or watched them on social media -- often featuring right-wing personalities such as Rudy Giuliani or Newt Gingrich.
The prolific ads urgently warn of a scam called "home title theft," when a con artist fraudulently claims ownership of someone else's home to swindle lenders or even sell the property.
In several commercials, Giuliani, Gingrich and other pitchmen claim the FBI classifies home title theft as "one of the fastest-growing" crimes in America. Some marketing materials also showcase people who've been identified as "real victims" -- a "devastated" Texas cowboy and a Florida-raised grandmother whose "heart-wrenching story of losing her rightfully-owned home is occurring all too often nationwide."
But the FBI told ABC News it can't find any evidence that the agency ever described home title theft as one of the fastest-growing crimes. In fact, while some local officials said title theft is quite prevalent in their areas, many other local authorities contacted by ABC News indicated that the crime is rare for them. And court records obtained by ABC News tell starkly different stories about those two "real victims."
An ABC News investigation of the company's marketing materials has raised serious questions about several claims made in some of Home Title Lock's recent ads, which one ad-tracking firm estimates were potentially viewed hundreds of millions of times on TV alone.
"Overstating the prevalence of a problem and relying upon assertions that you're saying the FBI makes -- that the FBI may not have made -- [is] problematic," said Daniel Kaufman, who until eight months ago was the deputy director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Certainly advertisers should not be doing something like that."
A spokesperson for Home Title Lock, former FBI agent Art Pfizenmayer, defended his company's marketing, saying its ads "are not out of bounds" and reflect what he and his colleagues "see and hear every day" -- in real life.
"We're bringing the real truth of the risk to the homeowners," he told ABC News.
A home's title is essentially its proof of ownership, usually in the form of a deed filed with a county government. Pfizenmayer warns that when fraudsters forge a home's deed and then use that home as collateral to obtain loans, lenders looking to be paid back could go after the homeowner or their property.
A small company with addresses in California and Florida, Home Title Lock says that for nearly $20 a month -- or $199 a year -- it will monitor a homeowner's title "24/7" and quickly alert them if anyone tampers with it. The company also vows to help victims reclaim their homes if needed, including covering legal fees.
But many of the claims the company makes about the risk and scope of home title theft have received little scrutiny -- until now.
"It is their burden to make sure that what they're presenting to the public to encourage people to buy their product is truthful and accurate," Kaufman said. "It just goes to that issue of, 'Is this a problem that really requires you to pay substantially in order to prevent it from happening?'"
'One of the top five threats'
"This is one of the top five threats … that we face as a country, in terms of thieves," Gingrich claims in a half-hour infomercial currently airing across dozens of TV networks. "Many homeowners simply don't believe this crime wave is growing this fast," the infomercial declares.
Though not all of Home Title Lock's marketing materials have used such broad and striking language, many have.
An ad that briefly aired on TV earlier this year, and still sits atop Home Title Lock's Facebook page, suggests home title theft "is sweeping the nation." (The company says the ad was a "test spot" and was not widely distributed.) A video on the company's website claims home title theft has spread "all over," while recent radio spots said, "It's exploding across America."
There is little dispute that home title theft is a real crime with potentially devastating consequences -- that's why many local governments are taking measures to help protect against it. But a sampling of law enforcement officials, county clerks' offices, and real estate-related organizations offered an uneven picture of home title theft's reach across America.
"Our members, they're not seeing it nationwide," the American Land Title Association's general counsel, Steve Gottheim, told ABC News.
"From what we hear, it seems to be more confined to urban areas," said Jim Thompson, a spokesperson for the Property Records Industry Association. "It's not something that's seen in middle America too much."
Indeed, while authorities in New York City and Philadelphia have each described title theft as an "epidemic" in their city, in recent years -- amid the COVID-19 pandemic and new anti-fraud efforts -- alleged cases of title theft have dropped by nearly two-thirds in both cities, according to statistics provided by city officials.
The New York City Sheriff's Office received 154 unverified complaints of title theft last year, and Philadelphia's records department received 53, they told ABC News.
Meanwhile, without providing numbers, a prosecutor based in Houston said home title theft is still "extremely prevalent" near her, while in and around Detroit the county prosecutor's office pursues two or three dozen cases each year. And a local official in South Florida dubbed his area "the title-fraud capital of the world," after authorities there launched more than 50 title theft-related investigations last year, he said.
But officials in some of the nation's other largest cities and other areas described title theft as uncommon for them.
In and around Chicago, the Cook County Clerk's Office "has not seen any increases in deed fraud/property fraud in recent years. In fact, we have only investigated a handful of cases over the last several years," an office spokesperson said.
County officials in Phoenix, Arizona; San Jose and Marin County, California; Tampa, Florida; and Greensboro, North Carolina, offered similar assessments.
In Georgia, a spokesperson for the state attorney general said, "Our office is not seeing that type of issue in the state." Across Pennsylvania, "it happens sporadically but isn't a highly-reported issue," the attorney general's office there said. And in Iowa, the state's attorney general, Tom Miller, said during a recent teleconference that -- at least in his state -- home title theft "as a practical matter doesn't exist," adding that ads portraying the crime as simple or rampant are "deceiving" Americans.
Still, Pfizenmayer, the Home Title Lock spokesperson, strongly disputed that his company's ads overstate title theft's spread throughout America, insisting "it's not that rare" and "empty suits" wouldn't understand "what we see and hear every day."
"We find title theft coast to coast, border to border, all the time. It's everywhere," he said.
Initially dubbed "house stealing," home title theft was first recognized by the FBI in 2008, at a time when fraudsters were seeking to capitalize in many ways on the unfolding financial collapse.
In an alert at the time, the FBI urged homeowners to "stay vigilant," even as it said home title theft was "not too common at this point."
In the 14 years since then, news accounts and law enforcement announcements have highlighted egregious cases of title theft, with some victims facing financial ruin or even eviction from their own homes. But it's not clear to what extent the crime has grown nationwide, and some officials said it peaked in their areas more than a decade ago, around the time of the financial collapse.
An 'FBI warning'
The FBI and Justice Department both told ABC News they don't maintain data specific to home title theft. Neither do most of the local authorities and national organizations contacted by ABC News.
Still, a frequent part of Home Title Lock's pitch is a claim that "according to the FBI," title theft is "one of the fastest growing" crimes in the country.
Since 2018, ads have even quoted a purported "FBI warning" that, the ads say, classifies home title theft that way. And Gingrich cites the "FBI warning" in the opening line of the company's latest infomercial.
That infomercial also claims that "FBI internet crime reports" dating back to 2015 show home title theft is "growing two-and-a-half times faster than credit card fraud." Big-name conservative radio hosts such as Bill O'Reilly, Dan Bongino and Sebastian Gorka recently echoed a version of the claim on radio.
But FBI officials told ABC News they couldn't find any warning from the agency calling home title theft "one of the fastest growing" crimes. And a review of those "FBI internet crime reports" shows they don't offer any statistics specific to home title theft -- instead providing data about the general category of "real estate/rental" crime, which includes many forms of property-related fraud.
In fact, according to those FBI reports, the number of people victimized by "real estate/rental" crime nationwide has remained relatively steady over the past several years, with 11,562 victims in 2015 and 11,578 in 2021. Last year alone, thousands more fell victim to credit card fraud, identity theft, phishing-related schemes, or one of a dozen other types of internet crime, according to the FBI reports.
However with housing prices on the rise, each victim of "real estate/rental crime" is losing far more money now than ever: The total monetary losses that victims incurred last year were eight times greater than in 2015, making "real estate/rental crime" now the fifth most-lucrative type of internet crime, according to the FBI reports.
"Therefore, you have to assume, in my opinion, that title fraud has gone up an equal number of times," Pfizenmayer said. "[It's] an educated, calculated guess. ... You have to use common sense in extrapolating."
Jessica Rich, who led the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection for several years and now works on advertising-related matters in private legal practice, said it "sounds like they're playing with numbers and making misrepresentations."
Some of Home Title Lock's online materials explicitly note that "fraudulent real estate losses" -- not title theft cases -- are growing faster than credit card fraud. But other marketing materials, including recent radio spots and the current infomercial on TV, don't make that clear.
When ABC News asked Pfizenmayer about the alleged "FBI warning" that supposedly calls home title theft "one of the fastest growing" crimes, he said, "I can show you documents where that is specifically stated." But the FBI document he then showed ABC News wasn't about home title theft at all: It was published in 2005 -- nearly two decades ago -- and it said, "Mortgage Fraud is one of the fastest growing white collar crimes in the United States."
According to Pfizenmayer, you can "extrapolate" conclusions about home title theft from that because, he said, it's "included in" the FBI's mortgage fraud data. But he previously acknowledged that mortgage fraud and home title theft are different -- so "don't confuse them," he cautioned.
Mortgage fraud involves lying to lenders to obtain loans, while title theft involves filing fraudulent documents with county authorities to claim ownership of a property. A criminal might use title theft as part of a mortgage fraud scheme, but there are many other ways to commit mortgage fraud, including falsifying one's salary and assets or using a stolen identity to obtain a loan.
Similarly, title theft can be used without mortgage fraud, especially when a targeted property is put up for rent or sale rather than exploited to obtain loans.
Despite repeated requests, Home Title Lock has yet to provide ABC News with any document from the FBI calling home title theft "one of the fastest-growing" crimes.
Pfizenmayer stood by his company's language, saying it was not misleading to attribute those quotes to the FBI "because we're not the only ones saying it."
Indeed, at least two of Home Title Lock's competitors -- who contract with county governments to offer residents free title-monitoring services -- say in their own promotional materials that the FBI has deemed "property fraud" among the fastest-growing crimes. And online articles suggest they started saying it before Home Title Lock did.
Even county officials have repeated the claim publicly, though some told ABC News they were just reciting information they received from their vendor.
After ABC News asked one of those vendors about their own claims, the vice president of the company conceded he "couldn't find a specific reference to that comment about property fraud from the FBI either."
"We will likely update some of our materials [and] rephrase it," he said -- though that has yet to happen.
There are at least two forms of home title theft. In one, a homeowner is tricked into transferring their home's title to a scammer, who often makes false claims of salvaging the home from foreclosure or other distress.
The other form of title theft is what Home Title Lock's marketing seems to focus on, involving someone unknown to the victim.
When that occurs, the victims are often the most vulnerable: elderly and low-income minority homeowners, or those with vacant or already-distressed properties, according to government press releases and officials in Texas, New York City and elsewhere.
In most states, county recorders are legally obligated to accept filings that appear properly completed, as it's not their role to authenticate newly-filed deeds.
But many jurisdictions also have some protections, including requirements that filings be notarized. And two county officials noted that staffers in their offices can flag suspicious filings for further investigation, even if those filings have to be initially accepted.
Ultimately, a fraudulently-filed deed is "null and void," Gottheim noted. So stealing a home through title theft is "much more difficult" than ads make it sound, Miller, Iowa's attorney general, said during the recent teleconference.
Proving fraud in an actual case of title theft can be time-consuming, stressful and expensive: "It's a legal, financial and emotional nightmare that will haunt [victims] for years," Pfizenmayer said, noting that title insurance doesn't cover what happens after a home is officially sold.
Nevertheless, Pfizenmayer and others said law enforcement has long been reluctant to treat title theft as a criminal matter, rather than a civil property dispute. And even when it is treated as a crime, investigations are challenging and complex, and there is no statute "on the books" dedicated to title theft -- so it remains "grossly underreported," Pfizenmayer said.
In recent years, an assortment of infomercials, TV ads, radio spots, social media posts and even Home Title Lock's website homepage have featured two alleged "victims" of title theft: "Jeff" and "Debra."
"I think every American homeowner needs Home Title Lock. But you don't have to take my word for it. Listen to Jeff," Gingrich proclaims in the current infomercial.
In Home Title Lock's ads, "Jeff" describes himself as a hard-working Texan who was "devastated" when "criminals took my property" -- a "secluded" ranch with a big stone house "that was going to be my home forever."
"Debra" claims she and her family were evicted from their home in St. Cloud, Florida, after "thieves" had "gone online," used "fraudulent papers," and "sold our house over the internet."
"This is the home where the children were living, where we had many days of happiness and laughter," she recalls emotionally in one ad -- until "Debra's home was stolen by cybercriminals," Home Title Lock has claimed.
But records obtained by ABC News dispute those accounts.
Court documents show that Jeff McFatridge, now 55, lost his home in Hillsboro, Texas, after at least two judges -- one federal, one state -- rejected claims he made against banks and others when they tried to foreclose on the property.
"This is not a complicated case," the federal judge wrote in 2013. "[He] has not paid his mortgage in three years."
In the case of "Debra," it was her daughter -- not some unknown cybercriminal -- who sold the home while acting on her mother's behalf with "power of attorney," according to court testimony.
Court records show that in the months before the sale, Debra Savoie-Glass, now 65, wasn't regularly living at the Florida home, but her daughter and grandchildren were. And they continued to live there even after the water was cut off due to nearly $1,200 in unpaid bills, rendering the home "uninhabitable," a police report said.
An officer who visited the property described it as "absolutely disgusting," with children sleeping on box springs, vomit on the floor, and toilets filled with "fecal matter, urine, and used toilet paper," according to police records.
Two months later, in April 2017, the home was sold to an online real estate broker. Just days before that new owner informed Savoie-Glass's daughter she would have to vacate the home, Savoie-Glass and her daughter claimed in court documents that their identities were stolen and their home was sold "without permission."
But during an eviction hearing several months later, the daughter testified under oath that she's the one who sold the home, with her mom's "permission" and "full power of attorney."
A judge then ruled "based upon the evidence" that Savoie-Glass was no longer the home's lawful owner and her family could face eviction.
"That is incredibly problematic, to present someone in an [ad] as a real victim, but they're not telling a true story," Kaufman said, after hearing about ABC News' findings in the Savoie-Glass case.
While Pfizenmayer told ABC News that "pertinent" records reviewed early on reflected "clear evidence of title fraud," he declined to say whether Home Title Lock reviewed court records from the Savoie-Glass or McFatridge cases.
Reached by email, Savoie-Glass maintained to ABC News that she and her daughter "did not sell our home over the internet," claiming they were caught up in "a broken process" that accepts "fraudulent" documents "as fact."
Asked if her daughter's testimony in court was not truthful, Savoie-Glass didn't answer.
"There are plenty of victims out there; we didn't need to go with these two," Pfizenmayer said.
A week after ABC News questioned Pfizenmayer about Savoie-Glass and McFatridge, Home Title Lock removed nearly all references to them from its website.
An attorney for Home Title Lock said the company "has always been committed to truthful and accurate advertising," and is now investigating "those testimonials."
The two "victims" still appear in videos on social media and in the infomercial airing nationally.
McFatridge did not respond to calls and messages from ABC News seeking comment. Efforts to reach Savoie-Glass' daughter were unsuccessful.
Throughout Home Title Lock's marketing materials, so-called "experts" bolster the company's claims about title theft and how its services can help stop it.
But the marketing materials, including the current infomercial with Gingrich, rarely disclose that those "experts" have certain connections to Home Title Lock -- connections that experts who spoke with ABC News said should be disclosed.
That's true of Pfizenmayer himself, who is often identified in TV ads, radio spots and sections of Home Title Lock's website as a former FBI agent but not as a company spokesperson or minority shareholder.
"It should absolutely be disclosed," Kaufman said of Pfizenmayer's ties to the company.
But Pfizenmayer, who left the FBI in 1995, said he doesn't believe further disclosure is necessary because audiences can tell he's "talking as a part of Title Lock," and he freely mentions his connections in media interviews.
Home Title Lock's ads also feature another former FBI official, James Finch, who led the agency's Oklahoma City field office until 2015 and oversaw its Cyber Division from 2006 to 2008.
"If an elite law enforcement professional" like Finch "thinks home title-monitoring is worth every penny, don't you think he might know something you don't?" the current infomercial asks viewers.
Those ads, though, don't mention that, according to Home Title Lock's attorney, Finch is a consultant to the company.
"If you present an endorser and they have a material connection to the advertiser -- and that can be that they work for the company, or they're a relative, or that they were paid -- that has to be clearly disclosed in advertising," said Mary Engle, a former top FTC official who now serves as executive vice president for policy at BBB National Programs, which helps companies self-regulate their advertising.
The FTC has issued guidelines covering such endorsements, noting that connections between "endorsers" and advertisers could "materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsements," and "such connection must be fully disclosed."
Many of Home Title Lock's ads also feature endorsements from a "real estate agent," a "title executive," and a "mortgage banker." But those ads don't mention apparent connections to the company: According to a 2015 press release, the "real estate agent" was once Home Title Lock's "VP of Sales and Marketing"; the "title executive" was once a consultant to the company, Pfizenmayer said; and the "mortgage banker" was described on social media by one Home Title Lock employee as her cousin.
Experts who spoke with ABC News said such former or familial connections could be a problem.
"These connections to the company taint what they're saying," and "anyone listening to their claims would be entitled to know" about them, Rich said.
"To prevent a claim from being misleading," disclosures need to be made "right there and then," and the disclosures "need to be prominent," according to Rich.
In recent weeks, after ABC News began asking Home Title Lock about its advertising, at least one ad airing on national TV was updated to disclose that a "convicted home title thief" featured in many of the company's marketing materials is a "paid expert." In another ad that aired on TV over the past month, Finch is also labeled a "paid expert."
A representative for Gingrich told ABC News that, after interviewing Finch and other "experts," the former speaker finds the risk of title fraud "alarming" and believes "a monitoring service like Home Title Lock is the most effective way to prevent the problem."
'Be skeptical' and 'be careful'
Pfizenmayer wouldn't say how much money Home Title Lock brings in each year, but he offered that their annual revenue is at least $10 million and that, "We spend practically every dollar that we make on marketing."
He also said Home Title Lock uses conservative voices in much of its advertising because past marketing efforts showed "our demographic is people 45 and older who are essentially conservative."
Ads for Home Title Lock have recently aired on Fox News Channel, Newsmax TV, and some of right-wing radio's most popular shows. And in a one-month period between May and June alone, the infomercial with Gingrich aired more than 250 times across nearly 40 different TV networks, including Fox Business Network, Travel Channel and the Food Network. It has also aired on ABC-affiliated stations and networks owned by Disney, the parent company of ABC News.
Beyond the infomercial, since 2018, nearly a dozen different Home Title Lock ads have produced at least 892 million "impressions" on TVs across the country, according to iSpot.tv.
The infomercial repeatedly claims that "when a criminal fraudulently … steals your title, no one will notify you" -- not a bank, "not the police," and "not your county."
But in his interview with ABC News, Pfizenmayer acknowledged that many counties around the country offer free versions of title-monitoring services.
It's unclear exactly how many counties do, but of the nation's 150 largest counties -- which reportedly account for more than half of the entire U.S. population -- a slim majority of them offer free notification services to their residents, according to an ABC News analysis.
"The reality is none of those deed-fraud services [can] prevent somebody from going in and filing a fake deed," Gottheim cautioned. "All they can do is maybe help you recover faster or cheaper on the back end."
Still, he and others said that anyone worried about home title theft should sign up for their county's notification service, if available, and keep tabs on their credit reports.
Some counties without notification services encourage residents to "be proactive and check" their own property records, as Maricopa County, Arizona, puts it.
Pfizenmayer, however, said concerned homeowners who "want somebody who's going to actually be there 24/7" and "notify you the minute" something changes, should purchase Home Title Lock.
"Free is good, but you get what you pay for," Pfizenmayer said, adding that Home Title Lock is like fire insurance -- while the U.S. rate of house fires is about 0.2 percent, homeowners still believe fire insurance is worth the investment.
ABC News asked Home Title Lock how many cases of title theft have been identified through the company's monitoring system. ABC News also asked Home Title Lock to cite any cases in which their services helped a customer reclaim a stolen title in court and to provide information on the amount of money they've spent covering legal fees for customers.
The company did not provide any of that information.
Engle, one of the former FTC officials, offered this overall takeaway: "I think it is always smart for viewers to be skeptical of the ads they see. And do your research before buying something or spending a lot of money. … You really have to be careful."
An attorney representing Giuliani declined to answer questions for this story, referring ABC News to Home Title Lock. A representative for Dan Bongino didn't respond to questions from ABC News. Efforts to reach Bill O'Reilly and an attorney who represented him were unsuccessful. And when ABC News contacted Sebastian Gorka over Twitter, ABC News received a response saying, "I don't collude with the FAKE NEWS."
ABC News' David Scott and Jenny Wagnon Courts contributed to this report.