Imagine buying and selling a house without a "For Sale" sign ever hitting the front lawn. CBS News Correspondent Maureen Maher reports on one woman in Detroit who became the unwitting owner of a house she'd never seen.
Though the mortgage showed she was the owner of the house in metro Detroit, the woman, who asked that her name not be used, says she never bought it nor does she own it now.
So why did the mortgage list her as owner of the house?
"Well, somebody stole my identity," she says.
She's one of several people in Detroit who, according to a federal complaint, allegedly had their name, social security number and drivers license number stolen by Sylvester Murray.
Murray allegedly used the information to obtain not just one, but possibly five mortgages in her name. He adamantly denies the charge.
"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone, because I am an extremely careful person," the woman says.
"I think on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the most heinous or most malicious, this is right at the top," says U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins.
Collins, who filed the complaint, says the con starts with stealing the identity of people with good credit to "act" as the buyer.
Then the identity of a homeowner is stolen. Unbeknownst to them, their house is then re-mortgaged and literally sold out from under them.
"And then take it a step further by stripping the equity out of the home," Collins says. "This is just unconscionable."
Apparently the scam required some inside help. According to the complaint, Murray had the help of a bank employee to help push the mortgage approvals through.
And, sources tell CBS News, someone else in the county records department may also have been in on the scam.
It's a complicated but highly orchestrated scheme that has authorities concerned that this case may only be the beginning.
FBI agent Paula Wendell believes that there are dozens or even hundreds of victims still out there who may not be aware that they've been scammed.
In the case of the woman, Wendell says she was actually lucky. An early tip in the case will prevent her and the other homeowners who were scammed from having to pay back the loans.
But for any others out there, "we estimate it can take a year to five years to even find out, because when your house is paid off, unless you do any type of credit check, you don't know if someone else is taking out another mortgage on your house, " Wendell says.
Identity theft has now become a reality check in Detroit.
"I am one of those people that years ago, you could leave the back door open," the woman says. And now, she says "you gotta lock it."
So, while a life without a monthly mortgage payment may be every homeowners dream, unless you can protect that prized piece of property, it could cost you more than you ever bargained for.
Copyright 2002 CBS. All rights reserved.