You might have seen this recent story, which was covered by the Daily Telegraph and featured on the BBC News, about a man who discovered that his house was being fraudulently listed for sale when his estate agent daughter spotted it being advertised on Rightmove.
Minh To only became aware of the scam three days before the sale was due to take place at auction. He had no idea that the property had been illegally listed on Rightmove, with the two fraudsters using To’s personal documents to falsify and alter the deeds.
The fraudsters – who have since been jailed for seven and a half years and two years and nine months respectively - stole three utility bills from To’s postbox, as well as raiding the family’s bins to snaffle further documents. The duo then forged To’s signature and transferred the deeds into one of their own names. Afterwards, they placed the house up for auction – with a starting bid of £300,000. They opted to sell the home via auction to bat off suspicion and prevent prospective buyers from asking to view the property beforehand.
Minh To has since called on the Land Registry – which has recorded nearly all of the property and land sold in England and Wales since 1993 – to do more to protect people like him from scams like the above.
“When you know what they have done, it is quite clever really and it is up to the Land Registry to make it more difficult for them,” To told the Daily Telegraph.
“It was even easier for them because I had paid off my mortgage and they did not have to get another signature - now I have made sure my solicitor's signature is on the deed too. All it took for them to do this was to copy my signature, a bill and faked documents - it was that easy.”
Minh To’s case isn’t the only fraudulent act of recent years however, as more and more scams within the property market are being reported, especially with scammers intercepting emails between buyers, sellers, estate agents and solicitors.
During the critical stage of the conveyancing process, scammers have been able to hack the email accounts of these parties right before the point of completion and send an email, disguised as your solicitor, asking you to pay the full amount into an alternative bank account.
As the email is sent from the account that has been hacked, there’s no way to tell that it didn’t come from the original sender and once you have made the payment, you might not even realise it’s gone to the wrong bank account until you next contact your solicitor. Scammers quickly transfer the money you’ve paid into other bank accounts around the world that are impossible to find, so that when you do finally realise the scam, there’s no trace of the activity surrounding the theft.
Protect your property
But how can you protect your property and yourself from being the victims of fraud? As the above cases show, it is scarily easy to fall victim to these fraudulent acts, but there are steps you can take to safeguard your home.
Land Registry suggests a number of ways in which property owners can reduce the risk of becoming victims of fraudulent activity. While the government organisation insists it constantly monitors and reviews its anti-fraud practices and policies, it is of course the case that no system is completely, 100% fraud-proof.
Land Registry’s dedicated counter-fraud team, which works closely with a number of agencies to gather intelligence about fraudsters and how they work, is aware that certain properties are more at risk of being targeted than others: for example empty properties, properties that are rented out and properties that are mortgage free (as Minh To’s home was). Properties that are unregistered with Land Registry are also more vulnerable.
If you purchased or mortgaged a property post-1998, it should be registered with Land Registry. You can double check the register if you don’t know for sure.
If any of the information you’ve registered with Land Registry is incorrect or needs updating – for example your contact details or contact address – you will need to let the service know to ensure you receive the right correspondence from them in the future.
To give yourself further peace of mind, you can also sign up to get free property alerts if someone applies to change the register of your property or if there is activity on your property such as an application for a new mortgage or change of ownership. While the alerts don’t automatically block changes to the register, they will alert you to new activity and allow you to take appropriate action. If it’s not you changing things, then it could be the case that something is up – the alert enables you to act decisively before the situation spirals out of control.
Another possible safeguarding measure is to put a restriction on your title. In other words, you can prevent Land Registry from registering a sale or mortgage on your home “unless a conveyancer or solicitor certifies the application was made by you”. If you are a business owner or don’t live at the property in question, this is free. If you do live at the property, you will be charged £40. Land Registry will inform you once the restriction has been added.
On a more basic level, there are things you can do to prevent your identity being stolen. Be mindful of who you are giving your bank details to and remember to frequently change passwords for your online accounts. Shredding or cutting up bills, documents, bank statements and any other documentation bearing your name or contact details is a better move than putting them in your dustbin. You might not think people will be rummaging in your bins, but never underestimate the lengths to which fraudsters will go to defraud you.
It is a similar situation with an outside postbox – you have to ask yourself whether this is safe and secure enough. In the case of Minh To, the postbox couldn’t be seen from the front door and the fraudsters took advantage of this fact to steal three utility bills. It might be wise, for total peace of mind, to have your post delivered directly to your door and posted through your letterbox.
If you are a landlord with an empty property, meanwhile, it is wise to check up on this property on a regular basis to ensure nothing untoward is happening.
Fortunately, the type of property fraud witnessed above is still very rare. But it can be devastating for those affected, not to mention stressful, expensive and time-consuming to resolve. As is often the case, prevention is better than cure. If you take steps to safeguard your property, ensure your home is registered with Land Registry and carry out due diligence with documents of a sensitive or personal nature, your chances of being caught out will be much reduced.