In three words – all of us. The vast majority of properties in England and Wales are registered at H M Land Registry and therein lies the problem.
Official Copy entries of title deeds are freely available to all who are willing to pay a small fee of £3.00 to the Land Registry. Why are these documents available? Simply to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
Fraud and the impersonation of individuals, as well as companies and even solicitors, is seemingly easy to do through the advances of technology. Mr Bloggs of 25 Acacia Road Suncastle (fictitious) can obtain the Title to your or any registered property, in England & Wales, instruct a solicitor some 250 miles away to act on his behalf and all correspondence and requests for information and ID is done by e-mail or letter interspersed perhaps by the odd telephone call. Mr Bloggs does not have to present himself to the law firm and so is never seen and the solicitor is none the wiser as to the potential for fraud.
As in all cases, the elderly and vulnerable are the most obvious victims but tenants can also purport to be the legal owner of a property and endeavour to sell or remortgage their landlord’s investment without their knowledge.
Can a fraud be spotted? The easy answer is probably. As a solicitor you need to consider who is selling and why, why are they using your firm and at all times be diligent to the risk. A very good fraud or fraudster will not be noticed until too late and therein lies the risk.
So what can be done?
Aside from always keeping your address up to date as shown on your Registered Title Deeds, the Land Registry have recently made available a ‘Property Alert’ service and they also offer the opportunity to add a Restriction to the Registered Title where a certificate needs to be given by the solicitor (on re-sale or further mortgage) confirming the person to whom the transaction benefits is the legal owner. Again, the impersonation of a solicitor can be undertaken and therefore it would appear that the restriction may be circumvented.
The alert service will send an e-mail when someone makes an application against your property title. In theory this is good but who should receive the e-mail? You may instruct your solicitor or have the e-mail sent to you but again should you change your e-mail address or the instructed solicitor leaves the firm or they use a general email, who is going to pick up the notification from the Land Registry? It may be too late.
There are downfalls to both scenarios, however, the Land Registry Property Alert system is probably the better way forward (at present) and indeed provided that the e-mail is sent to a family member or the family solicitor, there is protection not only for the elderly and vulnerable but also you.
So by making use of the tools available to you and following the basic principles of looking after your property and personal details together with the employment of a good, local, experienced solicitor to look after your needs, then hopefully your risk from fraud will be reduced.