Thursday 11 November 2021

Avoid having your house ‘stolen’

Scammers are getting increasingly sophisticated and property is an area they target due to the high transactional values. You may be aware of ‘phishing’ attacks, whereby fraudsters impersonate your solicitor to try and intercept the transfer of funds into their own pockets, but have you heard about the tricksters who attempt to impersonate you so as to steal your property!?

A worried landlord forwarded me a news article last week about this recently happening to a man in Luton. He had returned home to find it stripped of all his possessions, having been sold without his knowledge. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, with the Land Registry paying out £3.5m in compensation due to fraudulent transactions last year.

The fraud occurs with the criminal impersonating the owner of a property so they can then sell or mortgage it. Buy-to-let properties without a mortgage are the perfect storm here, as the owner won’t live at the property and there isn’t a mortgage company double-checking things or receiving any of the sale proceeds.

As title deeds are a publicly available document (they cost £3 to download online), it is very easy for anyone to get the name of the owner of a property. The title deed will also show whether there is a ‘charge’ against the property i.e. a mortgage. With this information the fraudster, who often first poses as a tenant, will simply change their name by deed poll to match the property owner’s name. Now living at the property with the same name as the true owner, it becomes very easy to build up identification documents and paperwork that would see that person passed off as the ‘owner’.

That’s exactly what happened with the property in Luton, with the fraudulent tenant selling the property without the landlord even knowing! Another case saw a previously unencumbered property in London become subject to a £1.2million bridging loan, which was paid out to a mother and daughter who had changed their name to match the registered owners.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this; which is to enter a restriction on your title deed. This will then state that any application to change the register must be accompanied by a solicitor’s certificate verifying your identity as that of the legal owner. This can cause a slight delay when you actually want to sell or mortgage your own property, but that’s surely better than falling victim to this crime.

Another option is to sign up to the Land Registry’s free property monitoring service. You’ll receive an email if an application is made to change the register; so, whilst it won’t prevent changes being made, at least you’ll know straight away so you can take prompt action.

As ever, prevention is better than cure. So, whilst the above is rare, it pays to be aware of such matters so you can put measures in place to ensure you are protected. Thorough tenant referencing will also put off any chancers with such misdeeds in mind, as they will seek an easier target if asked too many questions. 

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