Scammers tried to steal Elvis Presley's former mansion Graceland - here’s how to make sure they don't get your home

The self-proclaimed scammers used a fraudulent real estate scheme to attempt to steal Elvis Presley's iconic Memphis home-turned-tourist-attraction.
The self-proclaimed scammers used a fraudulent real estate scheme to attempt to steal Elvis Presley's iconic Memphis home-turned-tourist-attraction. Photo credit: Getty Images

Last month, a much-beloved piece of American history was nearly stolen - but not in a museum heist or a home burglary. Instead, self-proclaimed scammers used a fraudulent real estate scheme.

In late May, Graceland, Elvis Presley's iconic Memphis home-turned-tourist-attraction, was nearly auctioned off when a company called Naussany Investments and Private Lending fraudulently said it had a claim to the house. A Tennessee judge ultimately stopped the sale.

Experts say rental properties, vacation homes and homes where the owners are deceased can be targets of home title theft. However, despite the high-profile Graceland attempt, these types of scams are still relatively rare.

Last year, there were a total of 9,521 reported real estate scams, including title theft, according to the FBI's annual Internet Crime Report -- a number that has stayed relatively stable over the past five years. But these crimes have become easier than ever to execute, according to experts.

Here are some ways to protect yourself:

What is home title fraud?

Home title fraud occurs when scammers impersonate homeowners to refinance or sell a victim's property and pocket the money. This type of fraud can be devastating and costly to resolve.

The scheme can take many forms, but the internet and new technology have made it easier for crooks to carry out, said David Fleck, a real estate fraud attorney in Los Angeles.

"The way we transfer ownership of property in this country is by signing a deed of some sort in front of a notary who verifies our identity. Then, that document is recorded by the recorder's officer or the clerk's office. Their job is to keep the official copy of the document forever," he said. But new technology has provided an opening for would-be thieves.

"It's pretty easy to get a high-quality fake ID online," Fleck said. "It's also very easy to get a fake notary stamp online and literally every computer has the technology on it to create believable forged documents."

In the case of Graceland last month, the purported scammer presented documents claiming to show that Lisa Marie Presley, the recently deceased daughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley, had borrowed $3.8 million from Naussany Investments and used Graceland as collateral.

Actress Riley Keough, Elvis Presley's granddaughter and the current owner of the property, sued to protect the estate from going to auction, alleging fraud and claiming Naussany had no right to the property.

Naussany's documents apparently contained a Florida notary's forged signature, according to court records.

In a statement, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said his office was looking into the attempted foreclosure auction of Graceland.

In an email associated with Naussany Investments to CNN, a self-proclaimed scammer claimed responsibility for the attempted home title fraud.

"I didn't win this one. I've stole (sic) many identities and received monies, we don't win all," the email read.

In a separate email to the New York Times, the alleged scammer wrote that they are based in Nigeria and mostly targeted homes belonging to the dead and elderly, especially in states like Florida and California. They used sensitive documents like birth certificates to facilitate their schemes, according to the Times article.

Jeremy Miller, director of product and development at Allstate Identity Protection, said scammers are generally attracted to properties like rental homes or vacation homes.

"When there's a lot of documentation flying back and forth, some red flags might be missed," Miller said. "When there might not be anybody living there, or it's a transient population, it's a bit easier for them to attack something like that."

There isn't an easy fix for this type of fraud. Fleck said the best recourse is to file a lawsuit so that a court can decide who actually owns the property, which can be costly and time-consuming.

"Once a fake deed is recorded, the only option for the true owner is to file a special kind of lawsuit called a quiet title action to get the court to figure out who actually owns the property," he said, estimating that the process often takes more than six months.

How to protect yourself

Fortunately, there are ways to thwart home title fraudsters before they list your home for sale or take out a new mortgage in your name.

There has been a proliferation of commercials for home-deed monitoring services: If something unlawful happens, these services say they will notify you right away -- for a cost.

What these advertisements don't say is that many US counties offer deed monitoring services free of charge. Before you consider paying for a service, check to see your county's offerings, Fleck advises. Some states, like Georgia, have an opt-in text alert program that will notify you if there are any changes to your home title.

Some homeowners may already be protected. A standard American Land Title Association (ALTA) homeowner's policy of title insurance covers home title forgery and impersonation. However, ALTA's similarly named owners policy of title insurance does not provide such coverage.

Overall, said Miller, home title fraud is a form of identity theft, and homeowners should try to look out for anything "that seems a little off."

Miller warned that if a crook with your identity goes unchecked, they may try to perpetrate other fraudulent schemes in addition to home title theft.

There are ways to try to spot an identity thief, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Closely read credit card and bank statements and monitor your credit reports for suspicious activity to detect any signs of identity theft.

"If it seems strange and it's related to your finances, or if it's a letter you get in the mail or an email from a company you don't recognize, take that extra step to make sure there's nothing that might be smoke signaling a larger fire," Miller said. "A lot of times, early detection can help reduce risk."