And How To Protect Yourself
Fraud of all kinds is a growing problem today. According to the National Crime Agency (NCA) the last Annual Fraud Indicator suggests there are around 3.4 million reported incidents of fraud costing around £190 billion each year in the UK.¹
Property is a particular target for fraudsters due to its high value and the money they can make from property fraud. Unfortunately the move towards handling more of a property transaction online seems to have made it easier to commit property fraud. A Freedom of Information request to the Land Registry shows that there have been 678 claims for property fraud in recent years costing over £73 million.²
Here we will look at some of the main types of property fraud and at how to protect yourself from it.
This list isn’t exhaustive by the way, as fraudsters are finding new ways to beat the system all the time. However we hope it will help protect you from the main types of property fraud.
Property Fraud: Are You At Risk?
While all types of property and all types of property owner can be at risk of fraud some types are more at risk than others:
* Empty property is more at risk. Just being empty can flag up a property as attractive to fraudsters.
* Rented property is more at risk. A tenant may be able to impersonate the owner, obtain ID at the address and receive the owner’s mail. There is an even greater risk when the landlord lives abroad.
* Property for sale is more at risk. It is easier for fraudsters to obtain information about it. The fraudsters can find out about the owner, estate agent, solicitors, banks and mortgage companies involved and use them all to pursue the fraud.
* Property that is owned outright and not mortgaged may be more at risk, since there is equity within it to steal.
* Property that is not registered with the Land Registry is more at risk, as there is no registered title and so no official record of the legal owners.
* Property owned by elderly people may be more at risk, as fraudsters believe they will be less fraud aware.
Next we will look at some of the main types of property fraud:
Type of Fraud: Fake Property Websites
The Risk: There is a risk that any type of website in the property arena could be a fake. For example, websites which appear to be genuine businesses offering estate agency, property development, property investment, cash house purchase, finance and insurance, and property legal services could be fake.
These websites could be used as ways to sell you a fraudulent product or service or they could be simpler (but still serious) attempts to steal your personal information or your identity.
How to Protect Yourself: Treat all websites for brands you do not know with caution. Check for a phone number you can call. Check to see if there is a street address. If it is a limited company check it with Companies House. If any professional memberships or regulatory body memberships are claimed (eg. Propertymark or Financial Conduct Authority) check these with the relevant organisation.
Type of Fraud: Phishing
The Risk: Phishing is a type of fraud which is used to steal your information usually for the purpose of committing a larger fraud. It can be found in many areas but is particularly common in banking and finance.
With phishing fraudsters usually use email, text messages or social media notifications to encourage you to visit a fraudulent website. This may look the same as an online banking, other online account or email provider you use. If you enter your personal information the fraudsters can gain access to your account and use it both to defraud you and perhaps also defraud others by impersonating you.
How to Protect Yourself: Be suspicious about emails/texts/notifications asking you to visit a site and give information, even if it is a site you know. Never click on links contained in these. Check that any site you enter information into is secure (check for the padlock) and has the correct HTPPS address.
Type of Fraud: Pharming
The Risk: Pharming can be found in many areas but especially in banking and finance.
Pharming is a form of phishing. The key difference is that you are not necessarily encouraged to visit a fraudulent site by means of a notification, text or email. Pharming is a kind of cyber attack usually originated by a virus on your computer. With pharming, when you visit a legitimate site, you are fraudulently redirected to a fake site and asked to enter passwords or personal information which can then be used in fraud.
How to Protect Yourself: Ensure you have up to date anti virus protection on your device. Even when you visit a site you know and trust check that each page you enter information into has the correct HTTPS address and is secure.
Type of Fraud: Funds Interception
The Risk: Funds interception can happen when you are buying a property and need to transfer either your deposit or full amount to your solicitor or conveyancer so that they can pay it to the seller’s solicitor.
With funds interception a fraudster might pose as your solicitor and send you an email with their bank details so that you inadvertently transfer your money to their account rather than your solicitors.
Funds interception also sometimes involves email hacking. Fraudsters hack into email accounts used by solicitors and/or sellers perhaps using phishing and send fake emails from genuine accounts. This may happen on moving day when sellers and solicitors are under pressure to complete and so lower their guard.
How to Protect Yourself: Double check your solicitor’s/conveyancer’s bank details using a phone number you know is correct. Be VERY suspicious if you receive a ‘change of bank details’ email from them.
Type of Fraud: Fraudsters Posing As A Buyer
The Risk: A fraudster poses as a potential buyer of your property. They view your property and ask lots of questions about it and about you – just as a genuine potential buyer might. They may even make an offer on your property (but then withdraw) just to obtain even more information.
The fraudster then uses this information to steal your identity, impersonate you or in some kind of title fraud (see next). The fraud may not necessarily involve your property.
How to Protect Yourself: Be cautious about giving information to potential buyers no matter how friendly and genuine they might seem.
Type of Fraud: Selling Without Owner’s Consent (Swocking)
The Risk: A fraudster tries to sell your property without your consent and without your knowledge. The fraudster obtains information and documents allowing them to pose as the genuine owner and legally sell or transfer the property to someone using the normal legal conveyancing route.
Swocking may involve phishing or pharming, impersonation or identity theft. Swocking is also a type of title fraud where the fraudster seeks to change the legal title of a property fraudulently.
In some cases, a tenant of a rented property can be a perpetrator of title fraud. As well as being resident in the property they may have access to more information to help them carry it out.
Rather than selling the property fraudsters may try to transfer ownership into their own name (or an assumed identity) and then either sell it on or keep it. This can be harder to detect since the fraudster is also the buyer and so the buyer’s solicitor is inadvertently working for the fraudster.
This type of fraud can also affect buyers who buy a property from someone who is not the legal owner.
The solicitor who processes the sale and the unsuspecting buyer are victims of this type of fraud as well as the legal owner.
How to Protect Yourself: Take precautions to avoid phishing or pharming scams. Keep all your personal information and documents secure. Only disclose information and documents to those who need it, and check they are genuine before doing so. Arrange mail redirection when you sell or rent your property.
Type of Fraud: Mortgaging Without Owner’s Consent (Mwocking)
The Risk: Mwocking is similar to swocking except that a fraudster tries to take out a mortgage or loan using your property as security. They then disappear with the funds. You do not lose your property in this case, but you have a debt secured against it.
Again, mwocking usually happens alongside other frauds such as phishing, identity theft or impersonation. The fraudster obtains information and documents allowing them to pose as the genuine owner and apply for and secure a loan or mortgage against the property.
Mwocking is also a type of title fraud. The lender is a victim as well as the owner of the property.
How to Protect Yourself: Take precautions to avoid phishing or pharming scams. Keep all your personal information and documents secure. Check your credit files with credit reference agencies from time to time to see if credit checks or credit applications have been made which you did not authorise.
Type of Fraud: Money Laundering Scams
The Risk: Criminals who have money obtained from criminal activities may try to ‘launder’ it into legitimate money by using it to buy and sell in a seemingly genuine transaction. Property can be a target for money laundering as well as high value items such as cars, jewellery or works of art.
How to Protect Yourself: In a property transaction, it is the responsibility of estate agents and solicitors to comply with anti-money laundering or AML laws. However, sellers should be alert for anything buyers might do to circumvent these laws, such as by offering a direct cash payment outside of the agreed property price or paying an inflated amount in cash for fixtures and fittings.
Type of Fraud: Investment Scams
The Risk: Investment scams can take several forms: A fraudster may sell a property development off plan and ask for deposits or stage payments before completion. They then disappear or file for bankruptcy before the property is delivered. A fraudster may sell land on the basis its value will increase in future, especially if planning permission is obtained to develop it, but knowing this will not be granted.
Not all investment opportunities of this type are scams, but there is a risk they could be.
How to Protect Yourself: Be suspicious about property investments that appear to offer a high return for little risk or effort. Do careful due diligence before investing. Take legal advice where necessary.
Tips To Protect Yourself From Property Fraud
* Follow the old adage ‘if it seems too good to be true it probably is’. Investments offering unrealistic returns or buyers/tenants offering more to buy/rent your property than it is worth should be treated as suspicious.
* If in doubt, double check. If you’re not sure if a website, email, letter or phone call is genuine double check with an address or phone number you find from a trusted source.
* Ensure property you own is registered with HM Land Registry. Property you have owned for a long time or inherited from someone might not be.
* Keep your contact details with HM Land Registry for property you own up to date.
* Register your property with HM Land Registry’s Property Alert Service. Tel. 0300 006 0478. This is free. They will then notify you if searches or applications are made relating to your property.
* Enter a restriction against your property with HM Land Registry. The effect of this is that solicitors who are asked to sell your property have to make extra checks as to the identity of the seller. It may be advisable to ask a solicitor for advice before doing this.
* Keep up to date with the latest types of property fraud and fraudulent schemes. Action Fraud provides information on these from time to time.
If you suspect you are a victim of property fraud contact the police and/or HM Land Registry’s Property Fraud Line at email@example.com