Property fraud is on the increase and fraud methods change all the time. You should look out for anything that seems unusual or suspicious, as usually there will be more than one sign that fraud is being committed.
What are the types of property fraud?
Identity theft and impersonation
Criminals may impersonate anyone involved in a property transaction, including owners, buyers, borrowers, lenders or conveyancers.
One of the ways that property fraud can occur is where a fraudster has used forged documents to claim they are the owner of a property. They then apply for mortgages against that property and the mortgage is registered against the title to the property at the Land Registry. The fraudster then pockets the proceeds of the mortgage and disappears leaving the owner of the property with a debt they know nothing about until the lender claims they have defaulted on the mortgage.
If a property already has a mortgage secured against it, then the consent of the original lender is required before additional borrowing can be completed which makes any fraud harder to undertake.
If you do not have a mortgage or do not live at the property and therefore do not receive any notices or letters that are sent there, you can protect yourself in several ways.
We would recommend that you make sure that you notify the Land Registry of any change of address you may have so that they have up to date records of where to write to you. You can have up to three addresses listed including an email address, so if you travel frequently you will be able to choose the most appropriate addresses for you.
It is possible to register a restriction on your legal title. This requires the consent of a third party before a mortgage can be completed and registered against the title to your property. You can apply for a restriction if you live in the property but you have to pay a fee. If you don’t live in the property but own it privately, it is free.
Criminals may use false ID to pretend to be a buyer and make an offer, then withdraw before exchanging. They can then use the information they’ve learned during the process to commit title fraud on the owner of the property. They may also continue with the transaction and steal any money raised from the lender.
Criminals may attempt to sell or mortgage a property by impersonating an owner using false or stolen ID.
Criminals often target:
- sole owners, especially of unmortgaged properties
- owners who have died
- owners living overseas
- absent owners, especially landlords
- owners who are in a hospital or care home
- owners who have built up equity in their property
A criminal may pretend to be a conveyancer or to act for an authorised firm of conveyancers. You should check the details of the conveyancer acting for the other party to make sure they’re correctly registered.
Criminals may submit forged discharges - a formal recognition that a mortgage has been paid off.
Be wary if the source of the discharge is not a lender regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, or where the lender itself does not give you the discharge.
Am I at risk of property fraud?
Anyone who owns or is in the process of buying a home could potentially be targeted by scams, but some homeowners are more at risk than others.
If your property is empty or rented out, it is more vulnerable to fraud. Properties that aren’t mortgaged are seen as more high risk, as are those that are not registered with the Land Registry.
Properties most likely to be unregistered are those that haven’t been mortgaged or sold since 1990.
What can I do if I think I’m at risk?
The first thing you should do is to sign up to the Land Registry Property Alert service.
Alerts are sent to you via email when official searches and applications are received against the property you want monitored.
If someone tries to make changes to a property you have registered – such as applying to change the registered owner of your property – a notification is sent to you via email.
It won’t automatically block any changes to the register but it will tell you what is happening so you can take appropriate action if necessary.
It’s a good service for landlords too, as you can monitor up to ten properties at one time free of charge.
More than one person can monitor a property at the same time, which is useful if you and your siblings are looking after a property for parents in care.
Ensuring your protection during a property transaction
As professional property conveyancing solicitors, we actively engage with our clients to ensure that your data and monies are well protected. We insist that your bank details are only sent by post and will alert you to potential scams such as ignoring emails or phone calls that claim last minute changes of bank account details.
We would also advise:
- Do not send your bank details by email to anyone, either phone them through or take them into their office - if this is possible
- Choose your conveyancing solicitor carefully. Tees (incorporated under the name Stanley Tee LLP) is registered with the Law Society and the Council for Licensed Conveyancers
- Read anything sent to you by your conveyancing solicitor very carefully. We provide our clients with our bank details at the outset, by post and we stress that those details will not change
- If you are being pushed to proceed very quickly, be careful. Fraudsters often use this tactic so that emails are used and corners are cut
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