The recent conviction at Southwark Crown Court of a bank manager, a solicitor and a Land Registry employee of a massive property fraud involving nearly £4 million does, at first glance, cause a real worry to property owners.
These three, supposedly respectable, men worked together to sell properties that did not belong to them with drugs gangs pocketing the sales proceeds. Most of the houses they were ‘selling’ had stood empty for some time; either because the owner had died, was abroad or was in care.
Having identified a house to be targeted, the gang would put up a sign to indicate that a security company was monitoring the property. If no one complained, the house was put up for sale and the true owner’s signature copied by the Land Registry employee on the legal documents prepared by the solicitor. The sale proceeds were laundered through the dishonest manager’s bank.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the case is that many of the victims were elderly who lost not only their homes but also personal possessions at a vulnerable time in their lives
After the case, the Land Registry was quick to point out that it was the first time in their history that an employee had been convicted of such a serious offence. It is highly unlikely that such events will be repeated, so property owners certainly should not lose faith in the Land Registry or their processes.
However, the case does highlight the fact that criminals are now targeting property. Land and buildings are usually the most valuable assets most people own so it does make sense to take appropriate steps to protect them from fraudsters.
Protecting your property
If you have owned your property for some years, the title to it may not be registered at the Land Registry. The first thing to do is to make sure it is. This may seem odd advice, given the involvement in the Southwark fraud of a Land Registry employee, but their systems are very thorough and this was very much a one off case.
If you don’t register your title there is a risk someone else could register it in their own name without your knowledge and sell the property without having to forge signatures. State backed registration gives greater security of title and, in the event that you do suffer loss you may be able to get compensation from the Land Registry if there is fraud.
Once registered, you should ensure your personal details at the Land Registry are kept up to date, particularly where:
- You are going to be abroad for some time
- Where you are infirm and may have to move out of the house
- Where the property stands empty or is let
- Following a relationship breakdown.
The Land Registry issues guidance that in such circumstances the property owner should seek advice from a professional conveyancer or the Citizen’s Advice bureau. You may also want to consider making a Power of Attorney in some of these situations to a trusted family member so they can keep an eye on your property if you yourself cannot.
These are basic precautions and will not be costly or time consuming. They should, though, ensure that your home does not become a target for criminals and that your property really is as safe as houses.