Well, the short answer to that question is: ‘Yes’! But what does that actually mean? What is property fraud, and how can it affect you? More importantly, how can you protect yourself against it?
The most common form of property fraud is where a criminal pretends to be you, in order to sell your property without your knowledge, and pockets the proceeds.
There have been a number of high profile cases in the courts over the last couple of years, dealing with exactly this scenario.
In one well-publicised case, a fraudster claimed to be the registered owner of a property in Wimbledon. He did produce evidence of his identity to his solicitors, although the passport he produced later turned out to be a forgery.
He told his solicitors that he divided his time between a different address in the UK and Dubai and the sale proceeded. On completion day, the buyer’s solicitors in good faith sent the purchase money over to the seller’s solicitor. They in turn, and again in good faith, transferred the money to their client’s bank account in Dubai.
Sadly for the buyer, the fraud was discovered when the real owner turned up, and the transaction was held not to be genuine. Not surprisingly, neither the criminal, nor the money, were seen again.
So how can you protect yourself against property fraud?
Empty properties are at a greater risk. If you own a property but do not live in it, make sure that you or a trusted friend or relative visit it regularly. If necessary, think about employing an agent to keep an eye on it.
Make sure that you keep the Land Registry up to date with your contact details. They only have a duty to try to contact you at the last address they have for you. If you move, tell them.
You can also ask them to register a restriction over the title to your property, which requires a solicitor to give a certificate that the person who has signed the sale transfer is in fact the genuine owner.
Most properties are now registered at the Land Registry, but if you have owned yours for many years and it has not been mortgaged since you bought it, it might be unregistered, meaning that the Land Registry have no record of who owns it. The Land Registry offers reduced fees for voluntary first registrations, and this is something you should consider.
If you are buying a property, especially one which is empty, insist on sight of paperwork linking the seller to the property. This might be documents such as guarantees, copy utility or council tax bills, or planning consents. Don’t be afraid to ask the estate agent if they have met the seller in person.
Watch out for possible indications, such as a seller claiming that he/she has no knowledge whatsoever of the property, refusing to complete the Property Information Forms, or putting you under undue pressure to complete in a hurry. If you have any concerns at all, don’t hesitate to flag them up to your conveyancer so that they can investigate.
This Fact Sheet is for information only and is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice.