When buying and selling property, large sums of money are going to be sent between parties, from buyers to sellers, mortgage lenders to conveyancers. For this reason, it’s a strong target for fraudsters looking to steal thousands from unsuspecting members of the public.
Common types of property fraud
There are two very common ways that fraudsters will infiltrate the property market.
If criminals manage to get hold of the personal details of a property owner, they can use this to fraudulently change title deeds of the property to their name, so that they can then sell it on, or use the equity.
Back in 2016, property owner Minh To discovered that his house was being fraudulently listed for sale, when his estate agent daughter spotted it being advertised on Rightmove.
He 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, stolen from his letterbox, to falsify and alter the deeds.
Friday afternoon fraud
Fraudsters target the conveyancing solicitors of those in the process of buying a house, infiltrating the company’s email and diverting the funds of the buyer. This so called ‘Friday Afternoon Fraud’ (named as hackers take advantage of a busy working day, where transactions can be hurried through before the weekend) can have a huge impact on buyers, with some victims losing their savings, and the property they intended to buy.
The Howard Mollett case in 2017 was particularly painful, where the victim, in attempting to buy his first home, lost £67,000 when scammers used his solicitor’s email address to convince him to send the money to alternate bank accounts.
On one hand, legal firms have an obligation to highlight the risks to you, and consider the safety of their processes. However, it may be largely up to you to be wary of cyberattacks on your property purchase.
How to protect yourself from property fraud
Luckily, there are things you can do to protect yourself, your property, and your money from fraud. Here are 10 top tips to avoid losing it all.
1. Money and the human approach
If you’re making a bank transaction, or money is changing hands, call your conveyancer, using the number you’ve always used for them. Don’t email bank details, and do not automatically transfer money to a bank account given in an email. If they email you with bank details, call them and confirm. When you’ve made the transaction, call them again.
We get used to needing a paper trail, but when large sums of money are involved, it’s better to talk directly. If the number in the email is not your usual solicitor’s number, or you get forwarded to an automated system, do not call it. Get in touch with your solicitor using the number you’ve used previously, and check whether they meant to send that email
2. Don’t underestimate a hacker
As victim Howard Mollett said, “This is not someone claiming to be the cousin of the President of Nigeria asking me to wire money to them.” This was not even a similar email address that had one letter different to his solicitor’s. It was his solicitor’s email address. The hacker replied to previous threads, commenting on recent Mollett’s work trips, making it look genuine.
Everything you know about hacking – recognising dodgy misspelt emails, or fake companies – does not quite hit the level here. These hackers are more than competent – they have found a way to impersonate the person you trust with your money.
3. Stay wary, even if expecting an email
Don’t lower your guard because you have been expecting an email requesting the money – that’s how the hackers make it easy. You’re not being asked for money from nowhere, you are anticipating paying this money, and so it’s not at all strange that you’re being asked for it.
Even if you’re waiting to give your payment, call your solicitors when an email arrives. Check that the numbers, email and other details match, but ask them to confirm the email, the bank details and the amount. It is too easy to expect to pay, and to be eager to get on with the process. Do not jump in without double checking every time you pay an amount.
4. A change of bank account should set off alarm bells
If your legal firm says that they want you to use a different account to one previously used, or a different account because you’re abroad, or the amount is different – question it, and call them directly. Changes in banking are not the norm, and if issued by email, should be checked carefully.
5. Know when you’re at risk
You are more likely to be the victim of fraud if you have previously had your identity stolen, along with not having a mortgage, or if you’re living overseas. You can also be more at risk if going through a breakup or in the middle of a family dispute, as you are more likely to be distracted and rushed when attempting to finalise a deal. Be extra vigilant and pay attention to your accounts.
6. Register your property
If your property is not registered with Land registry, you are more at risk. Check with the Land Registry, ensuring your contact details are correct. If you purchased or mortgaged a property post-1998, it should be registered. You can also sign up for alerts if anyone tries to change your property details, for example, attempting to get a mortgage using your property.
It’s also possible to pay for Anti-Fraud Restriction, to stop the Land Registry from registering any sale that is not registered under your name and confirmed by a solicitor.
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.
7. Don’t leave your property empty
Whether you’re a landlord, you own a holiday home, or you have inherited a property, don’t leave it empty. Be vigilant about registering it, and either visit it, or get someone to keep an eye on the place and collect the post. Having an empty property puts you at a higher risk of fraud.
8. Pick a solicitor who understands the risks and has a plan
Some firms are responding to the threat of ‘Friday Afternoon Fraud’ by using technology to assess conveyancers on the other side of the transaction. When you’re transferring large amounts of money, you want to be sure that not only your solicitors are taking the right precautions, but the other side are as well. Talk to your conveyancer about what they do to avoid ‘Friday afternoon fraud’ and ask any questions you need to.
9. Checking the account first
Another way to be completely sure, if you’re particularly concerned, is to send a small ‘tester’ sum to the account, and then call to check it has been received. If your conveyancer can confirm arrival of the money, then you can send the rest.
10. Ensure you’re well protected
Whilst it is definitely down to your conveyancer to ensure their systems are secure, you also need to make sure yours are too. That means using very secure passwords, which are not used for anything else, and are changed regularly, as well as keeping anti-virus software up to date, and avoiding using insecure servers to make payments.
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.
Everyone thinks this will never happen to them, or that they are well versed in recognising fake emails, but as the money you put towards your new home is likely to be most of your savings, it is better to be safe than sorry. Always talk to people directly, don’t wait days to see what has happened to the money, and be more wary than you feel necessary. Once the money is gone, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any of it back.