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‘House hijacking’: property fraud on the rise in England and Wales

Meg Edwards, Trainee Solicitor in the Contested Wills, Trusts & Estates team discusses the subject of property fraud in this blog.

According to recent reports, there has been an increase in fraudulent property transfers in England and Wales, with fraudsters succeeding in conning homeowners out of hundreds of thousands of pounds, costing HM Land Registry £3.5 million last year alone (up from £2 million in 2020). A simple internet search of ‘house hijacking’ or ‘property fraud’ generates thousands of results and is indicative of the rising nature of this crime.

 

Property ownership in the UK

HM Land Registry (“HMLR”) is responsible for registering the ownership of land and property in England and Wales which is then recorded on the “title register”. The title register is a guarantee of ownership and is, or should be, indisputable. HMLR also records restrictions, leases, right, encumbrances and any charges on the title.

The title register is an extremely useful tool because, in theory, it provides security and certainty in terms of property ownership. However, what is becoming evident is that as fraudsters become more sophisticated, they are taking advantage of the guarantees HMLR provide to homeowners.

As a result, the security afforded by HMLR is becoming more open to abuse.

 

What is property fraud or ‘house hijacking’?

Essentially, this is where a fraudster will sell a person’s property without that person’s consent, knowledge or approval.

Fraudsters will often target properties that are empty, rented, without a mortgage and/or unregistered. Some of the crimes being committed are so unbelievable that they seem fictitious or film-worthy, but they are in fact a devastating reality for those who have fallen victim of property fraud.

So, how does it work? How does someone ‘steal’ a house? This is most easily explained by way of an example.

Example

  • Alan bought a house in 2010. Alan rents the house to tenants as he works overseas. Alan is the named registered owner of the property on the title at HMLR.
  • Alan’s tenants are due to move out and so Alan advertises to let the property. A fraudster contacts Alan and asks if he can rent out the property. Alan agrees.
  • The fraudster, now living in Alan’s property, sets out to steal Alan’s identity and succeeds in obtaining ID in Alan’s name..
  • Using Alan’s ID, the fraudster opens a bank account in Alan’s name. Only the fraudster has knowledge of the account details and Alan has no idea that the bank account exists.
  • The fraudster planning to sell the property approaches solicitors who check and verify the fraudsters’ identity. As they are using Alan’s information, all verification checks are passed.
  • The property is marketed and bought in good faith by purchasers who have no idea that the property they are buying is actually being sold by a criminal.
  • The property sale completes, and the fraudster instructs the solicitors to pay the proceeds into the bank account opened in Alan’s name. HMLR update the register so that the new buyers are named on the title of the property.
  • The fraudster then disappears without a trace. Alan returns from his work overseas to visit the property, only to find that he has no access to and a family are living in his house.
  • He calls the police who are unable to help on the basis that it is ostensibly a civil matter. He then instructs solicitors who check the title of the property and tell him that he is no longer the registered owner and that the buyers are named owners of the property.

In early November a fraudster was sentenced to two years and six months in prison having pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation and laundering money in a crime very similar to this.

What can you do if you think your property is at risk of fraudulent transfer?

HMLR have recently released guidance on how to protect your land or property from fraudulent transfer or mortgage. Essentially, the guidance advises that you:

  1. Sign up to HMLR’s Property Alert

Anybody who has concerns that their property may be at risk of fraudulent transfer should sign up to HMLR’s Property Alert service. This service is a means of monitoring your property; email notifications are sent to you should any searches or applications be made against the property. This would include applications made to change the registered owner of the property.

However, this in itself is not a means of blocking any applications or registrations, it is simply a way of monitoring the title.

  1. Place a restriction on the title

Another option is to place a restriction on the title of the property.

A restriction can prevent the sale or transfer of a property without certification from a conveyancer or solicitor which will confirm that the sale is in fact being undertaken by the property owner.

There is a small fee to pay for registering a restriction (around £40) though in the grand scheme of things, this is a very small price to pay if it protects a property from being hijacked.

 

What can be done if your property has been stolen?

As HMLR look to the title to demonstrate legal ownership, and where a purchaser has bought in good faith, they are unwilling to penalise the buyer and transfer the property back to the original owner. They are, though, sometimes willing to offer compensation.

This is a major concern for property owners who, through no fault of their own, could lose properties worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. If the fraudsters have left any trace of their real identity or a “digital footprint” then it may be possible to trace them with a view to recovering something, though the more sophisticated the fraudster the more difficult this will be.

Absent that, property owners whose properties are targeted must hope that HMLR identity and flag a potential transfer as ‘suspicious’ and refuse to register it. This is what happened when fraudsters tried to sell Penny Hastings’ £1.3 million London property in 2015. Unfortunately, in this case, although the property owner was protected by HMLR, the buyer had written a cheque for the purchase price £1.3 million, and this money had made its way to a bank account in Dubai and so the prospective buyer lost out.

 

Conclusion

The ability to sell a property without the homeowner’s consent (or knowledge) is fast becoming a very scary reality, although is something which has been kept relatively under the radar until recently. Although a clear concern for homeowners, it also poses a risk for prospective buyers who should ensure that they conduct due diligence when engaging with estate agents, conveyancing solicitors and even sellers.

If you have concerns about the content of this article or any aspect of fraudulent property transfers, please get in touch with our Contested Wills, Trusts & Estates team.
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Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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