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Could fraudsters steal your home from under your nose?

Is it really possible for fraudsters to steal your home? Alarmingly, the answer is yes – and you might not even know they’re doing it.

June 19, 2019

Fraudsters property title fraud

Is it really possible for fraudsters to steal your home? Alarmingly, the answer is yes. And even more shockingly, you might not even know they’ve done it until it’s too late.

With so-called property title fraud, scammers obtain the title of your property – usually by stealing your identity. They then change ownership on your property title from your name to theirs. They will then typically take out loans secured against the property or even sell it.

And while it’s not new, it’s on the rise. In the year to April 2017, victims lost £24.9 million to this type of scam, according to the Land Registry. This is a leap from £7.2 million in 2013.

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‘Fraudsters stole my £850,000 home’

The Daily Mail reported of a terrifying case this week of Angela Ellis-Jones who owns a four-bed house in South London worth £850,000.

After returning from a three-week trip last September she found her letterbox taped up and a metal post-box fixed to her front door. Fearing someone was trying to steal her identity she called police although they didn’t send anyone to investigate.

Then two months later she received a letter from the Land Registry. It was entitled ‘Completion of Registration’ and stated that her property now belonged to someone called Catherine Agnes Walder

How can it happen?

Angela contacted the Land Registry, who told her a solicitor had verified a woman as her when she went to him to transfer the property.

Last October an application to register the transfer was sent to the Land Registry. And notice of the application was sent to Angela three days later giving her three weeks to respond.

However, she never received it – so the Land Registry approved the fraudster’s application. 

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How do you get your property back?

Despite Angela being a victim of crime it was not straight-forward to resolve.

Firstly, the Land Registry saw it as a civil matter. And rather shockingly, it said the ‘current registered proprietor’, the fraudster, would need to be asked if she objected to Angela’s name going back on the register.

She was also warned that if the scammer had objected, they would have had to negotiate who rightfully owned the house. It could even have ended up at the Lands Tribunal.

In Angela’s case there was no objection and she was told the house was hers again in February.

Speaking about her case, a spokesman said: ‘HM Land Registry is doing all it can to minimise the risk of property fraud and to maintain the integrity of the Land Register.

‘Our counter-fraud unit works closely with the police. Since 2009, HM Land Registry has prevented 279 fraudulent applications, representing properties valued in excess of £133,431,543.

‘If someone is defrauded of their registered property, our state indemnity means they will usually be compensated for any resulting loss.’

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Am I at risk?

If you own or are in the process of buying a home you could potentially be targeted, 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 considered to be higher 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. You can check the register for just £3.

If the information on the register is incorrect, you must let the Land Registry know.

How can I protect myself?

If you think you are at risk of property fraud, then make sure you 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.

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.

You can monitor up to ten properties at one time free of charge, so it’s good for landlords too.

And more than one person can monitor a property at the same time. This is useful if you and your siblings are looking after a property for parents in care.

Extra steps

You can safeguard your property even further by applying to put a restriction on title deeds of your property.

This prevents the Land Registry from registering a sale or mortgage on your property unless a conveyancer or solicitor certifies the application was made by you.

You can apply for a restriction if you live in the property but you have to pay a fee of £40. If you don’t live in the property but own it privately, it is free.

For more information, read our guide on How to protect your property from fraud

 


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