Bricks and mortar remain one of the most valuable assets that any of us may own. For criminals looking to make a substantial quick return, therefore, property is very much in their sights.
So, how might fraudsters trick you out of investing in what is probably your most valuable asset? There are two main scams, identified by the official National Fraud and Cyber Crime Reporting Centre, Action Fraud:
- get rich quick by investing in buy to let property where attractive returns are practically guaranteed, say the fraudsters – when in practice, the property in question is probably derelict and the prospect of attracting any tenants at all likely to be so remote as to be non-existent;
- an even shorter route for the criminally-minded is to steal your identity and, having forged the necessary documents or made a fraudulent transfer from your name to theirs, attempt to sell the property and pocket the proceeds.
In the first example, you may be invited to an apparently above-board presentation or seminar, or bombarded by unsolicited flyers, inviting you to invest in a scheme that appears almost too good to be true – the problem is that it is usually just that.
Whilst the promoters are busy trying to convince you that theirs is the route to making you a millionaire overnight, the property or properties might not even be built yet, or the land in question may be derelict, zoned for agricultural use, and has no prospect of gaining planning permission.
In the second case, involving criminal impersonation of the real owner, fraudsters are known to target especially vulnerable properties, namely those which are:
- buy to let properties;
- empty properties;
- mortgage-free properties;
- properties owned by someone who lives overseas; and
- properties owned by someone who has died and where ownership is now held in trust.
These are the properties most likely to be targeted by fraudsters who pretend to be you and who sell or mortgage the property without your knowing anything about it. Once they have used your identity to fraudulently raise the mortgage, they abscond with the advance, make no repayments on the loan and leave you to pick up the pieces.
Protecting yourself from property fraud
It might seem obvious, but never make an investment in anything as substantial as a property transaction without conducting very thorough research.
If the deal seems too good to be true – such as the claimed return on a buy to let investment – it probably is, suggests the website Just Do Property.
HM Land Registry
In fact, there is readily available help to prevent yourself becoming a victim of property fraud and the government-run facility may be used entirely free of charge – this is HM Land Registry.
Essential details of the property are recorded by the Land Registry, including the names of the owners, the price for which it was bought and a plan showing its exact boundaries.
Registration is important, but not enough. You must remember to keep your registered details updates in order for the Land Registry to serve as the protection you need – and for the fraud protection advice it offers to be effective.
The Land Registry even offers a free Property Alert Service, which notifies you – by email if you have an online account – whenever certain activities are triggered on the properties you have registered to be monitored. If any suspicious activity seems to be taking place, of course, you may then take the appropriate action – including a call to the police Action Fraud hotline.