What if you wanted to sell your home and found out it wasn’t yours?

Someone with the right knowledge could file paperwork with the deed office, leaving the real property owner in the dark until such time as it is put up for sale or someone tries to get funds from the property using fraudulent paperwork.

A free new program initiated on April 16 by the Beaufort County Register of Deeds will alert property owners any time a document is recorded with the owner’s name or property ID.

According to Dale Butts, register of deeds, such a situation has happened only once in Beaufort County, but it is far more serious nationwide.

“While it’s a hot button topic across the country, we’ve been very fortunate in Beaufort County to not have any reports of it come my way,” he said.

Owners can register their property into the new alert system by following the instructions on the Register of Deeds website. Users can register a username and password.

Once you have received the confirmation email, log back into the deed website and complete the registration using the property’s parcel number or property ID, depending upon the information requested.

The instructions will show you how and where each part is. Be sure to use all the iterations of those names that are on the deeds.

“It’s a good tool for those who want to protect their property. Everything we index in this office is by buyer and seller name, so everything that is registered in a name,” said Butts. “Enter it on each line. If it is a trust or LLC, you can enter that, too. In the event that fraud were to take place, that would base it on whatever name or names you have in our system. You could have a middle name in one place or list no middle name somewhere else.”

The alert program won’t prevent fraud, but it will give owners a heads-up to new filings.

Because property records are a matter of public record, there is plenty of information that nefarious individuals could use to compile a legal-looking document.

More than 70,000 documents are recorded annually at the deed office, and the only time recordings can be refused is when statutory guidelines are not met.

“People can still forge signatures, try to reserve your property and try to get funds out of it,” said Butts, “and a lot has to happen before someone can get through and get the property. It has happened some places, otherwise it would not be so well-known around the country.”

The register said the office staff would not necessarily know if someone has filed fraudulent documents, because nothing would seem out of the ordinary until the owners were trying to sell the property. When that happens, the first thing to do is contact law enforcement.

“You’re either going to have to contact the sheriff’s office or city police and may even have to hire a lawyer, but this is an alert,” Butts said. “A lot of counties across the country are doing this as a tool to let local property owners that something has taken place.”

Within the first week of the alert program going online, more than 500 subscribers had registered their property. The alert program is for any type of land owned in Beaufort County, whether it is occupied or vacant. Subscribers might want to register the names or legal descriptions of property for their elderly relatives.

“I think it is going to be a popular tool as far as subscriptions to it, and hopefully no one will have to use it,” Butts said.

To register, visit rod.beaufortcountysc.gov/PropertyAlert. For more information, call Beaufort County Register of Deeds at 843-255-2555.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.