Prolific author and ex Daily Telegraph editor Sir Max Hastings became the victim of property crime when his wife’s house was the subject of a house sale scam.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Sir Max explains how his wife nearly lost her investment property to the ruse when clever and scheming crooks used a sophisticated scam to steal the property, while an unsuspecting buyer, the real victim is this episode, a young lady who has not been named, lost £1.3m in cash.
As a veteran war reporter, Sir Max thought he was unshockable, but that was before he received a jaw-dropping email from a Mayfair solicitor he had never heard of, asking about the sale of his wife’s house in London.
According to the Metropolitan Police’s cybercrime unit this is just the last in a series of “high value home” frauds being investigated. In this case Max and Penny Hastings were told her west London house had been sold for £1.3m, without their knowledge.
The house in question is Penny Hasting’s property in Fulham, which is earmarked as an investment for her children’s future inheritance, but had been let to tenants. She never has had any intention of disposing of it.
Yet the young lady who “bought” the property, the client of the lawyer’s who contacted Sir Max, had handed over a seven figure cheque. The money quickly found its way and ended up in a Dubai bank account. In the meantime the lady having secured the key, applied for planning permission for alterations, and instructed builders to install a new kitchen, before finding out she did not have good title to the property.
Once the Hastings had recovered from the shock, they discovered their own good fortune, because the Land Registry title remained in their name – Penny Hasting was still the legal owner.
Following lots of scams in recent years involving legal titles, it seems that on this occasion the Land Registry had suspicions about the transaction and had declined to register the sale. Penny Hasting’s legal title to the house therefore was not in dispute. The the real victim was the supposed purchaser.
The young lady, who had handed over a cheque for the full amount without the need for a mortgage, it turns out was a gift of over £1.35 million to fraudsters.
According to the Met up to 21 similar and possibly linked frauds against “high value” homes are being investigated by the Met’s Falcon (cybercrime) unit. It is common with these frauds that the money ends up in Middle Eastern bank accounts, say the police. So far seven people have been arrested.
Identity theft has become an increasing risk for anyone with credit cards and bank accounts, but when properties with these values are involved the money is of a different order of magnitude.
Sir Max said “we were astounded to discover that a house could be ‘sold’ without physical possession of the deeds.” However, these days’ property transactions are made electronically, without anybody needing to see old fashioned parchment
It would seem that the estate agents, the solicitors and the checking agencies were all to some extent culpable here, since some relatively simple checks might have uncovered this scam.
However, in their defence, these scams are particularly sophisticated involving the “vendor” changing her name by deed pole to Penny Hastings. She then took out a legitimate passport in this name, with of course her own photo.
The whole episode stared from a re-letting of the home, to what turned out to be fraudsters; a Mr Kevin Hafter was the tenant, though it turned out subsequently that this name was a stolen identity.
The letting agents had said that references were taken up and credit checks carried out by a reputable reference agency and proved acceptable. It probably would do, going off the documents provided alone. But it would appear that between the agent and the reference agency, these checks were not thorough enough.
Another chance was missed when the property was put in the hands of an estate agent for sale. A quick check would have revealed that the property had just been re-let, and perhaps more thorough checks should have been made on the so called vendor at that time by the agents.
Two aspects that should perhaps have rung alarm bells were that there was never any furniture put into the property, and all payments by Mr Hester were made in cash.
Mr Hafter claimed to be acting on behalf of a Penelope Hastings who was living in Chicago, which probably went unverified. With the appearance of an eager buyer on the scene, commission hungry agents were probably quick to seal the deal, and a firm of licensed conveyancers acted for the alleged seller.
Sir Max asked “who masqueraded as my wife? The ease with which a person can hijack another’s identity he says is the “scariest part of the story”.
With official documentation that matched the name of his wife, just a photocopy, most surprisingly, sufficed for the “sale”, without the need for the woman to appear for face-to-face identification. It transpires now that the Met Fraud Squad has traced the woman to a prison cell, where she is serving a sentence for other offences.
Sophisticated fraudsters like these target un-mortgaged properties and houses where their owners are not local.
Sir Max said he had been told it was the solicitors’ responsibility to check the identity of the “vendor” to confirm identity, but it appears this was not done correctly.
It turned out the real Mr Hester is the only one person in Britain of that name, a respected professional and understandably furious that his name had been used in this fraud.
Rental properties and their owners are particularly vulnerable to frauds like this. Landlords have sometimes lived in the property and their details are available from a £3 Land Registry research, so it is easy for tenant’s to steal identities.
Landlords and property owners, especially when they own their properties outright, should protect themselves by:
1 – Placing password protection on your credit files. This prevents people doing credit checks on you when trying to purchase large items in your name – see here
2 – Protect your land and property from fraud – you can register to have the Land Registry contact you and your solicitor by post and e-mail should anyone try to change details on your property title. See here
3 – If you own a company or manage properties though a company you should password protect your company details at Companies House here