The biggest type of crime in the UK is fraud. In the year ending June 2022, there were 3.8 million cases of fraud, with police recording that fraud had increased by 11% compared to the year before.
The most common type of property fraud is title fraud or impersonation.
Title fraud is where a criminal steals a property owner’s identity and transfers the property title from the owner’s name to theirs. The criminal forges the relevant documents and transfer deeds so that it appears the property has been sold.
Criminals may impersonate anyone involved in a property transaction, including owners, buyers, borrowers, lenders or conveyancers. For example, the criminal may try to impersonate your Solicitor and alter the information sent to you, asking you to transfer the purchase price into their own bank account instead of the Solicitors’.
In 2021, a house in Luton was sold whilst the owner was working away from home. He was unaware that the house had been sold until he had a call from his neighbour who was concerned that there was someone in his house and the lights were on. He arrived at the property to find someone moving in. He was impersonated by way of false identity documents. The impersonator had also created a bank account in the owner’s name and had phone calls with the solicitors. This particular investigation is still ongoing; the new owners of the property are trying to keep the property that they rightfully purchased, however, the original owner wants the property transferred back into his name as he did not willingly sell it.
A more recent example relates to a property in Southampton that was sold last year whilst, again, the owner worked away. He rented the property out through an estate agent whilst he didn’t need it. The criminal took up the tenancy and paid the rent but never moved in. He then sold the property below market value. The owner only become aware the house was sold when he had a call from Southampton Council to confirm someone else was living in the property and to ask if he was aware. He called the estate agents who advised him the property had been sold and there was nothing they could do. The owner is trying to claim compensation.
The Land Registry has revealed that, since 2009, they have prevented 400 fraudulent registrations. Law firms now follow strict compliance rules ensuring that all client’s identities are fully checked, helping ensure that they are dealing with the correct person.
The Land Registry have confirmed that you are more at risk if:
- You rent out property
- You live away from the property
- The property is empty
- The property is not mortgaged
- The property is not registered
You can reduce your risk of property fraud by considering the following:
1. If your property is unregistered, the best way to reduce the risk is to have the property registered at the Land Registry. You can contact the Land Registry to start the process. If your property is registered, you may be able to claim compensation if you are a victim of property fraud. All properties purchased after 1998 will be registered.
2. You can sign up to property alerts with the Land Registry. If someone applies to change the register of your property, you will be alerted. This will not stop the changes but will alert you so that you are able to take action as quickly as possible. You can register up to 10 properties free of charge.
3. You can put a restriction on your property that will stop the Land Registry registering a sale or mortgage of your property unless a solicitor or conveyancer certifies to confirm that the application was made by you. It is free of charge to add this if you are a business owner or if you do not live at the property.
4. If you receive emails from your solicitor or estate agents requesting funds, be vigilant and ensure that the email is from the firm to make certain you are paying the solicitor and not an impersonator. It is best practice to follow up any emails received of this nature by contacting your solicitor on the number they provided at the outset of the transaction and querying it with them directly.