The dangers of property title fraud

One of the things that people often worry about when they go on holiday for several weeks is worrying whether their house will be safe and hoping that it won’t be burgled. Undoubtedly one of the things that people wouldn’t think to worry about however is whether someone will ‘steal’ their house from them whilst they’re gone. Unfortunately, however, this is something that is becoming more and more common.

In the year to April 2017, victims of property title fraud lost almost £25 million when their houses were ‘stolen’ from them. One such person, known as ‘Angela’, went abroad for three weeks and returned home to find that her letterbox had been taped up and a metal post-box had been fixed to her front door. Subsequently, she then received a letter from the Land Registry (the government body responsible for registering ownership of land in England and Wales) two months later stating that her home now belonged to an individual by the name of Catherine Agnes Walder, a complete stranger. Angela’s home was now worth a very substantial £850,000 and she was clearly very frightened about the possibility of losing her home.

When Angela contacted the Land Registry following their correspondence, she was told that identity documents had been verified and accepted for a woman posing as Angela who wanted Angela’s property to be transferred to her. Following further correspondence with the Land Registry, several months later, Angela did manage to reclaim ownership of her home but only after the fraudster backed down, prompted by Angela’s claims that she was the true home-owner. Had the fraudster not backed down, however, Angela’s battle could have carried on for months and the case could have ended up at the Lands Tribunal. Worst still, if Angela hadn’t received the Land Registry correspondence, her home could have since been sold by the fraudster, acting in Angela’s name and Angela would then have had an even greater fight on her hands trying to recover her property.

This case goes to show what length some fraudsters will go to in order to try and profit from unsuspecting property owners, and unfortunately it is something that is becoming more and more common. Such scams increased by 7.2 million from 2013 to 2017. Property title fraud usually occurs as a result of identity theft, which is exactly what happened in Angela’s case.  

Key indicators to look out for are empty properties, high value properties and mortgage-free properties which fraudsters target the most.  It is possible to carry out simple checks however which would help indicate whether a person’s identity has been stolen, such as (1) checking your credit report and bank statements - this can help identify any financial action that may have occurred in your name (2) paying attention to incoming bills – if you have not been receiving all your standard monthly/quarterly bills this can be a sign of identity theft and (3) checking with your local Land Registry that the information registered for your home address at the Land Registry hasn’t changed. Third party service providers also exist who can help protect against property title fraud either through insurance or title protection methods.