Watch Out For Stolen Property  

One of the irritations of modern life is the need to provide ever-greater levels of security when opening accounts or making transactions online and by telephone. The intention is supposedly to make banking and money transfers easier for the customer, but the unintended consequence of this is that it may also make it easier for criminals to make fraudulent transactions too. All the miscreant has to do is gain access to your account details and passwords. It is for this reason that the public, and particularly the elderly, are constantly being warned against giving out their personal details to people they do not know. Solicitors too must be on their guard against bogus callers attempting to gain access to clients’ funds, since there are often large amounts of money at stake when dealing with property and probate. Staff at Bretherton Law, as in all solicitor’s firms, must undertake regular training in anti-fraud safeguards and money-laundering legislation, so that we can play our part in stopping fraudulent transactions going through.

Unfortunately not every attempt at dishonesty can be intercepted. The case of a Luton man has been highlighted in the local press, since it is now over a year since he found out that his house had been sold without his knowledge. He is still attempting to regain ownership of his property or obtain compensation, and a police investigation remains ongoing. The story goes back to August, 2021, when Mike Hall, the owner of the house in Luton, received a phone call from a neighbour. Mr Hall was working in north Wales at the time and was informed by the neighbour that someone was in the house and that all the lights were on. Mr Hall returned home to find the locks had been changed and all his furnishings had been removed. A new owner had apparently taken possession of the property and had begun building work.

Mr Hall’s case was subsequently highlighted on BBC Radio 4, which had obtained the driving licence, bank account details, and telephone recordings used when instructing solicitors to sell the house. Unfortunately, once the house was sold to the new owner by the bogus Mr Hall, legally it was their property. In September, 2021, Mr Hall applied to the Land Registry to have the property transferred back into his name, a claim which is being disputed by the innocent new owner who faces losing the £131,000 he paid for the house. The Land Registry is still to decide the outcome.

The BBC says that in 2021-22 the Land Registry’s indemnity fund paid out almost £7m in compensation to 598 claimants. This is up from £5.4m the year before. Many more cases of fraud have since come to light. Romsey and Southampton North MP Caroline Nokes has now taken up the case of one of her constituents and the matter has been brought to the attention of Parliament. Her constituent, Angus Penfound, was working away in Cornwall and had rented out his property through a local estate agent. A man calling himself Stephen Jones took up the tenancy and used his access to the property to sell it on to an unwitting third party for £198,000. Mrs Nokes said she was “very shocked to hear about the case and very alarmed to hear that it wasn’t the only case.” “I’m very sad to hear that it seems the Land Registry doesn’t seem to have caught up with 21st century identity theft” she added.

In reply the Land Registry said that it takes “property fraud very seriously, recognising that it can be extremely distressing for those affected. In the unfortunate event of a fraudulent transaction, there will normally be at least two victims. In most instances, the property is obtained by an individual in good faith believing it to be a wholly legitimate transaction. If that is the case, the property cannot be simply transferred back to the original owner, without further harm to that party. Where possible, we will restore ownership to the original owner, but in cases where the original owner was not living in the property at the time of the fraudulent sale (perhaps because they were renting it out), and an innocent party has purchased and then occupied the property in good faith, it is more likely we will allow the current occupier to continue to live in their new home and to offer financial compensation to the original owner. This would be in line with the guiding principles set out by the legislation.”

These cases highlight more than ever the need for all parties in a property transaction to be as vigilant as possible. Putting your affairs in the hands of professional and experienced conveyancing solicitors will go a long way to avoiding any costly mistakes.

Bretherton Law have been serving the people of Hertfordshire for over 50 years. Our team of experienced Property Lawyers will ensure that whether you are buying or selling, the conveyancing process will run smoothly and professionally. We offer a same day response promise as well as fixed fee quotes. Bretherton Law are accredited under the Lexcel legal practice and the Law Society’s Conveyancing Quality Schemes. Contact us on 01727 869293 or use the contact form on this page.