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New TV series highlights property fraud

land registry

A new four-part ITV drama series starting tonight is based around title fraud which can rob you of your property.

Downton Abbey actress Tuppence Middleton and Line of Duty star actor Martin Compston portray a couple who become victims of the little-known crime of house hijacking, a crime that 'can destroy your life'�.

Based on a 2018 thriller by Louise Candlish, who said the quote to describe the effects of losing your house title to the sinister world of identity fraud.

Based on real events

Candlish got the idea for her book after reading about a real-life drama, when Penny Hastings, the wife of military historian Sir Max Hastings, very nearly lost her investment property in London in 2015.

Her property in Fulham, west London had been sold under her nose to an unsuspecting buyer and by the time the crime was discovered, by accident, the new 'owner'� had received the keys and had got planning consent for renovations, and a builder was about to start.

This was a rental property that Hastings had on the market for new tenants with an estate agency. A female criminal had changed her name by deed poll '� Penny Hastings '� and processed the purchase with forged documents.

The real victim was the innocent purchaser, a young woman who paid the full amount of �1.35million in cash, with no mortgage. She had been fooled into handing over the money to the fraudster which was last heard of winging its way to a bank account in Dubai, never to be seen again.

This was a high value fraud, one which has been occurring with increased frequency reports the Metropolitan Police. A whole series of these linked frauds against '�high value' homes have been investigated by the Met's Falcon (cybercrime) unit. They typically involve huge sums disappearing into Middle Eastern bank accounts. Several people have been arrested in recent years.

Rental properties are targets

Rental properties without the encumbrance of a mortgage are prime targets for this type of crime and ones which the owners rarely visit make the fraud easier to carry out. Home hijackers tend to target these rentals and second homes, mainly investment properties. They target wealthy cash buyers to complete the fraud which means that mortgage lenders do not need to carry out any checks.

Fraudsters will typically rent the victim owner's property so they can impersonate the owner using forged documents, intercept the post and oversee estate agent and buyer viewings. Some owners have even been known to leave personal documents including passports in the property, which makes the criminal's clandestine work even easier.

Candlish, the author of the book describes this type of property crime as the tops, 'the crown jewels of property fraud'�, a much more sophisticated scheme than the more common scam of intercepting conveyancing solicitors' emails and diverting buyers' payments.

Just imagine arrive home or going round to your investment property to find a removal van parked outside with a new family moving in. They bought your property from fraudsters and they are now the registered owners.

To many people this storyline may seem far-fetched, but in reality it's far from it, it can happen to you, It's a sophisticated scam that involves both the buyer and the seller in the con.

And it's not insubstantial. During the financial year 2020-21, mostly during the lockdown period, The Land Registry paid out �3.5 million in compensation for 22 claims for property fraud of one type or another, from forging documents to transfer a parents' home into a relatives' own name or a stranger impersonating a homeowner and selling their house to an unsuspecting buyer as above.

Land Registry Property Alerts Service

There's a simple precaution that every UK property owner can take to combat this type of crime:

sign-up to the Land Registry's free properly alerts service. If you own a property without a mortgage especially, it's a simple process which takes a couple of minutes on the LR website and well worth the effort.

In addition, The Law Society and the Land Registry are advising conveyancers to use enhanced identity checks on buyers and sellers to help screen out these frauds.

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