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Property Theft – Fraud at the Land Registry
By Christopher J Sherliker

The idea that someone could steal your property (literally) out from under your feet may sound outlandish and laughable.

However, imagine being told that your property has been transferred into someone else’s name and that they have either taken out a hefty mortgage on it or have even tried to sell it on. It is an awful thought, but ‘property theft’ is on the increase.

Anna Stanworth and Property Partner Maria Guida explain how the unimaginable can happen, and what you can do to guard against it.

This type of property theft is the latest trend in property fraud and anyone owning an interest in a property is a potential victim. Fraudsters are using the Land Registry to carry out their schemes. Any member of the public can find out information about other people’s properties though the Land Registry, as access to information on registered properties has been available to the public since 1990. In 2005, the Land Registry introduced their electronic registration system, which, unfortunately, has made it easier than ever for scam artists to access information and try to apply for electronic registration at the click of a computer mouse.

Mortgage-free properties, especially those unoccupied by the owner, are usually targeted. Victims often include those who do not live in the property by reason of a relationship breakdown, having multiple homes or living abroad, as well as those who are staying in a hospital or in a nursing home.

Fraudsters will impersonate the property owner and contact the Land Registry with forged documents to ask them to transfer the title into a different name. The Land Registry will need to confirm this change and so will send a letter to the owner at the property, which the fraudster will try to intercept.

If the fraudster manages to successfully change the name of the owner at the Land Registry, they can then go on to sell the property or take out a mortgage on it, and then vanish with all the money before the true owner discovers what has been happening.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

The easiest and cheapest way to protect yourself from being defrauded is to keep your name and address on the register up to date. When your ownership details are first entered at the Land Registry, you are asked to provide an “address for service” so that the Land Registry can send letters and notices there if they receive any enquiries or applications regarding your property. If your details are not kept up to date, you will not be aware if fraudsters are making applications concerning your property.

An additional option would be to provide other addresses for service. The Land Registry allows you to have up to three addresses for service on the register and, as long as at least one is a postal address, you can include email addresses, a solicitor’s address or other postal addresses. One address may also be abroad.

This way, if anyone applies to the Land Registry concerning your property, you will be sent notification letters to all three addresses, so you can ensure that you will be aware of what is happening. However, if using a solicitor’s address, please contact your solicitor first and agree with them that they will act as a “care of” address.

If you need to change or add an address for service at the Land Registry, you can contact us and we will be able to assist. You may not even remember what address or addresses appear at the Land Registry, and this is something we can also help with by checking the current details held at the Land Registry.

Finally, you may wish to consider putting a restriction on your title if you think that you are particularly at risk of an attempted fraud. By doing this, you limit the powers of the registered owner of the property to change the ownership details of the property. For example, a Form LL restriction means that a solicitor will need to sign any disposition of the property – saying that he/she is satisfied that the disposer is the same person as the proprietor – before the disposition can proceed.

Land Registry property frauds are becoming increasingly commonplace and property owners need to act now to make sure they safeguard their properties against fraudsters. Fraudsters will be less likely to target those with up to date or additional addresses for service. Updating or adding addresses for service is relatively simple to do, but could save you your interest in your property – it would be absurd not to.

Added: 1st September 2010

Christopher J Sherliker is a partner for Silverman Sherliker LLP who provide legal solutions across a spectrum of requirements.  Find out more about Silverman Sherliker LLP.

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