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  1. Blog
  2. House sold without owner knowing: The truth about property title fraud
Advice about properties
22 July 2022

House sold without owner knowing: The truth about property title fraud

Sam Edwards
Writer
House sold without owner knowing

Table of contents

  1. 1. Property title fraud - How does it work?
  2. 2. What should I do if my house is sold fraudulently?
  3. 3. Am I at risk of property title fraud?
  4. 4. So how do you protect your property from fraud?
  5. 5. Summary: Protect your interests against this unlikely danger

On the 20th August 2021, Reverend Mike Hall was working away in North Wales when he received a call from his neighbours back in Luton. The lights were on and there was someone moving around in his house. When Mr Hall returned to Luton, he found his house completely stripped of his belongings, and a stranger living there. He was told by the new owner’s father to vacate the property - it was no longer his home.

While he was away, Mr Hall’s identity was stolen. The person impersonating Mr Hall then sold without his knowledge and transferred the profit to a fake bank account set up in his name.

Selling someone’s property without permission is usually a result of property title fraud. In 2021, HM Land Registry reported that they had paid out a total of £3.5 million in compensation for fraud.

While certainly a lot of money, it’s a small figure in the world of property. Property fraud is extremely rare. The Land Registry states that fraudulent transactions account for 0.001 percent of applications.

But what exactly is property title fraud, and what happens to a house sold by fraudsters?

Property title fraud - How does it work?

It’s usually the result of identity theft and a lack of due diligence on the parts of the parties involved in the transaction. Somehow, a stranger gains access to key documents and either takes ownership of, or sells the property, without the knowledge of the legal owner.

If a property is registered with the Land Registry, fraud usually occurs when the address for services has not been updated. Documents containing important information from the Land Registry are delivered to the property, and the letters are stolen (with the property being either empty or occupied).

Using this information, a fraudster could pose as the registered owner and sell the house without the original owner realising.

Unregistered properties are much more at risk of property title fraud. Fraudsters can steal or acquire the deeds, or produce false records to prove their ‘ownership’ and sell the property.

In most accounts of property title fraud, the solicitors and estate agents involved fail to spot that anything illegal is being committed. While incompetence is one factor, another is the sheer sophistication of the techniques utilised by fraudsters.

The rarity of fraud speaks for the rigorous identification systems (estate agent and solicitor) in place during property transactions - but fraud can and still does happen.

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The case of Angela Ellis-Jones

In 2019, the Daily Mail reported that Angela Ellis-Jones had lost her four-bed house in South London to a fraudster. She had returned from a three week holiday away to find her letterbox taped up and a metal post box fixed to her door.

Despite registering concern with the police, the officers did nothing - and three weeks later, she received a letter from the Land Registry, stating that her property now belonged to someone else.

Like Mike, Angela was a victim of property title fraud, but both scenarios were enabled through different means. In Mike’s case, a duplicate driving licence and bank account were set up in his name to sell the property. In Angela’s, a solicitor verified a person as her when they applied to transfer the property.

What should I do if my house is sold fraudulently?

So what do you do if you find your property has been stolen?

Mike Hall reported his situation to the police but he was told it was a ‘civil matter’. However, after some push back, and involvement from the BBC, Bedfordshire police’s fraud squad began an investigation into alleged fraud. A man has since been arrested.

Angela Ellis-Jones contacted the Land Registry immediately. They, like the police in Mike’s story, saw it as a ‘civil matter’, and that the ‘current registered proprietor’ (the fraudster) would need to be asked if they objected to her retaking ownership.

If the scammer objected to this, they would have had to negotiate the matter in court - potentially at the Lands Tribunal. Thankfully, it never came to this, and the property was hers again a few months later.

In both highly publicised cases, the homeowners saw some sense of justice. But with every case of fraud being a case within itself, what steps should you follow in this unlikely scenario?

1. Check the Land Registry

Your first point of call is to check your property’s deeds under Land Registry documentation online. Checking the name on the deeds will verify whether the stranger living in your home is actually the new owner, or a squatter.

If you do not recognise the name on the title deeds, it’s likely that your home has been sold or acquired through fraudulent means.

2. Contact HM Land Registry

Let HM Land Registry know that you have not authorised the sale or transfer of your property’s ownership, and that you suspect fraud has been committed. While there was some pushback in Angela’s case, you need to register your complaint with the appropriate authorities - and one of these is the Land Registry.

The Land Registry has a specific line for those who believe they have been victim to property fraud. Their property professionals are here to help. Their contact number is: 0300 006 7030.

3. Report your case to the Metropolitan Police

The Metropolitan Police have a website dedicated to fraud-related cases. Report your case here and await further instruction. Alternatively, you could ring 999 if you suspect there are signs of immediate danger.

Am I at risk of property title fraud?

Everyone is at risk of fraud. Title registers are a matter of public record. Anyone who can download a copy, will have access to your email address. However, it’s extremely unlikely that a stranger will be able to use such information to steal your identity and property. Never enter any personal details into emails received from ambiguous senders.

On the other hand, some homeowners are more at risk than others. You’re more likely to be a victim of fraud if:

  • Your property is unregistered
  • Your property is left empty
  • You don’t have a mortgage against it (bought your property with cash)
  • You live overseas
  • Your property is rented out
  • You have not changed the address of your service letters
  • Your identity has been previously stolen

So how do you protect your property from fraud?

If you want to safeguard your property against fraud, follow these simple steps:

  1. If your house is registered and rented out to tenants, update your address for service at HM Land Registry. Changing your address to your current main residence will prevent important documents from being sent to your rented property.
  2. If your property is unregistered, register it with HM Land Registry. Property owners with unregistered homes are much more likely to have their deeds stolen or falsified. Properties that have not been remortgaged or sold since 1990 are more likely to be unregistered.
  3. Sign up to the Land Registry Alerts service. You’ll receive an email with a property alert whenever there’s significant activity related to your home - for example, if a new mortgage is taken out against it. It doesn’t block changes to your register, but it will keep you updated on any changes so you can take appropriate action.
  4. Put a restriction on your property’s title deeds. It prevents the Land Registry from registering a sale or mortgage unless a solicitor certifies that the change was made by you, the rightful owner. Please note that this is a Land Registry paid service. You must pay a fee of £40 if you live in the property. If you don’t live in the property, but own it privately, this service is free of charge.

Summary: Protect your interests against this unlikely danger

Property title fraud, while extremely rare, can happen to anyone - but it’s more likely to happen to those with unregistered, rented, or untended properties. If your house falls under any of the brackets discussed in this article, cover all the bases to safeguard your interests.

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