Don’t be caught by conveyancing scams

Crimestoppers, the crime-fighting charity, is partnering with the Safe Buyer Scheme, a fraud-prevention tool, to raise awareness of conveyancing fraud. This type of scam is increasingly common in the UK, with 159 homebuyers losing their deposits to fraudsters last year, up 85% on 2015.

There are several types of property fraud, but the most common is known as “buyer deposit redirection fraud”. This type occurs when correspondence between a buyer and their conveyancer is intercepted, with the fraudster then impersonating the firm, and providing fake bank details. The buyer then transfers their deposit money to this fraudulent account, thinking they have been liaising with their conveyancer. By the time anyone has detected any suspicious activity, such as the conveyancer chasing the transfer of the funds, the money has been withdrawn or transferred. This leaves the buyer out of pocket and without their new house.

The Safe Buyer Scheme’s website allows you to check that a conveyancer is part of the scheme or find one that is. When you need to transfer money, you can use the site to check that the bank details you have are correct for a £10 fee (plus VAT). A cheaper alternative is to send a test amount of £1 to your conveyancer’s account. Once this has left your account, ring the solicitor’s office (checking the telephone number through the firm’s secure website or elsewhere) to make sure that the money has arrived in the correct account. Don’t just rely on contact details that you may be sent via email, since this can more easily be hacked to send you a false number operated by the scammers.

Another common type of property fraud is “property hijack”. Homebuyers are losing £25m per year this way, estimates the Safe Buyer Scheme. Property hijack occurs when a fraudster impersonates the legal owner of a property and sells it without their knowledge, pocketing the proceeds. Typically, property hijackers target unmortgaged properties or ones where the owner lives elsewhere; for example, if the property is let to tenants or if the owner is living abroad. Fraudsters will usually achieve this in two ways: by using a forged document to transfer the property into their own name, or by impersonating the owner.

Homeowners can reduce the risk of falling victim to this type of fraud by signing up for the Land Registry’s free Property Alert service. The service will alert you if someone applies to change the register of your property; for example, if they try and take out a mortgage on it. The aim is to alert homeowners so they can take appropriate action before it is too late. On the buyers’ side, the Safe Buyer Scheme also runs a “proprietor check” service (for £15 plus VAT), which offers a fraud search designed to highlight any concerns that the seller may not be the property’s registered owner.

Finally, another option for homeowners is to put a restriction on your title. This stops the Land Registry from registering a sale or mortgage on your property unless a conveyancer or solicitor certifies the application was made by you. You can set this up via the Gov.uk website; there is a £40 fee if you live at the property, though the service is free for businesses or those who own a property privately but are not living in it. If you’re a victim of property fraud, you should contact the Land Registry property fraud line on 0300-006 7030 and report your case to the police via Action Fraud.

Skinny house squeezes into alley

A two-metre-wide disused alleyway between two central-London buildings is being turned into a luxury house expected to fetch £2.7m, says Lauren Davidson in The Daily Telegraph. The four-storey house will be on Euston Road in Fitzrovia, and will have three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a roof terrace with views over Regent’s Park. Planning permission has now been granted, with the developer behind the so-called “Skinny house” saying the building will provide “family sized housing in the city”. By contrast, the owners of the neighbouring pub have said the house would be “entirely out of character and context of the area”, labelling the project “a contrived residential unit forced into a space designed as a narrow service road”.