How to deal with property fraud
Property fraud is on the rise and any property owner is potentially at risk due to increasingly rapid and remote conveyancing transactions. Discovering that one of your most valuable assets has effectively been stolen by a potentially unidentifiable criminal comes as a shock to those targeted.
This article explores what can be done if you find yourself a victim of property fraud.
Why is property fraud a growing problem?
The Land Registry’s move towards an online, paperless land registration system is faster and more convenient than in the past. Unfortunately, it also makes life easier for fraudsters who, by using a forged document, impersonating or stealing the identity of the registered property owner, may be able to acquire ownership or fraudulently sell or mortgage a property. Gone are the days when watermarked land certificates were required to prove a person owned a property, which had to be produced to the Land Registry on every transaction. Copies of documents held by the Land Registry are readily available to purchase online through their website and this can be used to fraudsters’ advantage.
Whilst property fraud comes in many different guises, we have encountered a number of instances where property owners have discovered that their properties have been fraudulently sold without their knowledge. Forged signatures in transfer deeds, false witnesses, identity theft, foreign bank accounts and even dishonest solicitors are common ingredients in the mix for property fraud.
In one of the cases we have successfully dealt with, the fraudster sold a number of properties to our client for several million pounds then shortly afterwards fraudulently transferred the properties out of our client’s name to another corporate vehicle controlled by the fraudster without our client’s knowledge.
What can you do if you find yourself a victim of property fraud?
Fortunately there is some recourse where you have been a victim of property fraud, although it is not always easy. With the right evidence, a victim may apply to the Land Registry to rectify the register to correct a mistake due to the fraud. Whether or not a property’s title can be put back in the original owner’s name will depend on a number of factors, including whether the current registered proprietor is in possession of the property or has anything do to with the fraud. If the register cannot be altered, compensation might be available from the Land Registry through its indemnity scheme.
Action points if you suspect property fraud
- Report the suspected property fraud to the Land Registry as soon as possible. The Land Registry has a dedicated phone line which can be used to alert them if you are worried that your property may be subject to criminal activity. They may be able to put a temporary protective application against the property to prevent further transfers taking place as an initial precautionary measure.
- Report the fraud to the police. This can be done online through the Action Fraud website.
- Seek urgent legal advice and assistance with lodging the appropriate and comprehensive application(s) at the Land Registry together with supporting evidence.
If you have any questions arising from this article or need assistance regarding property fraud or any related matters, please do not hesitate to get in touch with Zoe Athill or Simon Painter in BDB Pitmans’ property litigation team.