Property fraud is one of the fastest growing crimes in the UK, according to press reports.
The principle is alarmingly straight forward and simply described by the property website Just Do Property. It involves the effective theft of your property by criminals who steal your identity and, by impersonating you, go on to mortgage or sell your home.
The way in which it works may be illustrated by two court cases which recently hit the headlines.
Title deeds handed over
The first example was reported by the Independent newspaper on the 28th of June 2017 and is especially straight forward – although evidence in the prosecution of the particular criminal involved took almost a year to present to the court and gained notoriety as the longest trial in English criminal history.
The criminal in this case posed as a financial adviser and targeted elderly or especially vulnerable home owners, by persuading them to part with the title deeds to their homes in the belief that the large sum of money obtained may be used to help clear their debts or help to support them through their old age.
As more and more elderly people move into care homes, a greater number of houses may be left empty, with the existing mortgage already paid off. This makes the property vulnerable to property fraud, where criminals impersonate the absent owner and arrange a further mortgage on the property. The advance is made, but no mortgage repayments are forthcoming, and the criminals abscond with the proceeds, leaving the hapless owners to attempt to settle the losses.
The second example is a crime committed by tenants who may be equally smooth talking and convincing.
Having taken on a tenancy agreement – under an assumed name, of course – they then use your own name to advertise the property for sale and may once again stand a chance of making off with the proceeds, as described in a report that appeared in the Financial Times on the 12th of May 2017.
Protecting yourself from property fraud
In the first instance, it is vitally important to entrust your financial affairs only to a trusted and properly authorised financial adviser. Never hand over the title deeds of your property without legal advice or without thoroughly understanding the implications of what you are doing.
Avoiding rogue tenants – including the potential fraudsters amongst them – is always a question of being rigorous in your selection and insisting on verifiable references and credit checks.
Whatever type of property you own – whether it I your own home or one that is let to tenants – a general protection against potentially very costly fraud lies with HM Land Registry.
Always make sure that your property remains correctly registered and that the details are thoroughly up to date – these identify the legal owners, the price that was paid for the property and a plan showing the boundaries of the property.
The Land Registry also offers free fraud protection advice on its website, together with a Property Alert Service which informs you whenever critical activities appear on the registered property you are monitoring. Alerts are sent to you by email – although you may still receive such notifications even if you are not online and do not have an email account.
If you become aware of any such suspicious activity, of course, it is as well to inform the police via the Action Fraud website or telephone number.