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Protect against property fraud

A legal expert is warning homebuyers to help protect themselves against property fraud, following reports that such crime is on the increase.

Sarah Barnes, head of Residential Property at Napthens solicitors, warns that fraudsters have been known to impersonate law firms, for instance taking the name of a genuine firm which has ceased trading, or that is very similar to one still in business.

These criminals will then pretend to be the seller of a property, and give a potential buyer the details of the bogus ‘solicitors’ who will be handling the sale. Eventually they vanish with the funds, and the buyer discovers the property was not up for sale in the first place.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority, the body which oversees the legal profession, reports an increase in such cases – 548 cases in 2013, an increase of 57 per cent from 2012. In the first four months of 2014, 235 cases were reported.

Sarah Barnes of Napthens warns that genuine law firms will do all they can, often instructing an independent company to discover whether the lawyers acting for a party are genuine – checking bank account details, for instance.

She said: “Properties particularly at risk from fraud include those left empty for some time, or when the owner has gone into long-term care of died. Properties let to tenants can also be affected, and those without a mortgage.

“There are a number of ways homeowners and buyers can protect themselves. The Land Registry, for instance, has introduced a fraud hotline, and a free service called Property Alert.

“This will email the registered owner of a property if the Land Registry receives a request for a search of the register, usually made immediately before a sale is completed or an application is made to transfer a property into someone else’s name.

“Another way in which property owners who are not living at their property can protect themselves is to register what is known as a ‘restriction’ against the property title.

“Such as restriction means the Land Registry will not register a dealing with a property, for example a transfer or a mortgage, unless a solicitor or other professional conveyancer certifies that they have checked the identity of the person who has signed the deed. This could help to prevent a fraudster forging a signature.

“Anyone with any doubts should alert their solicitor straight away.”