Protecting homeowners from identity theft 

A year after the case of Reverend Richard Hall returning to his Luton property to find that it had been sold without his knowledge, BBC You and Yours found a pattern of criminal behaviour. 

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Hall is still fighting to regain formal ownership of the house and is “in despair” as he continues to battle The Land Registry for compensation. 

In August 2021, Hall was working in North Wales and received a call from his neighbours alerting him that someone was in the house. He immediately drove to the property to find that his key no longer worked and it had been stripped of its contents. 

After gaining access, he calmly confronted the new owner’s father and was told that the house had been sold. The Land Registry confirmed that Hall was no longer the legal owner. 

More cases uncovered

The BBC reported that many more cases had since been uncovered, including that of Angus Penfound, who, in 2018, purchased a property in Southampton for £180,000 and renovated it at some considerable cost. He then took on new work in Cornwall and let out the house via a well-known local letting agent. 

The new tenant provided a deposit, paid the rent and council tax – but they didn’t move in. Penfound has since discovered that a criminal using the fake name of ‘Stephen Jones’ took up residency and sold the property for £190,000. 

Penfound only discovered that there were people in his house when alerted by the council and has since raised a claim with The Land Registry for compensation. 

Identification fraud 

In both cases, the criminals involved stole the owners’ identification. In the case of Penfound, they fabricated his driving license via the DVLA and replaced the photo. Once they had the ID, they could access utility bills and set up bank accounts. 

Fraudulent paperwork was used as ‘proof of ID’ when appointing solicitors to sell both properties. Hall has since discovered that he was registered as a director of a fake company. 

Updating the law

When the BBC approached The Land Registry, they said that it is more likely to award compensation than give the property back to its original owner, according to the Land Registry Act 2002. 

Penfound’s MP, Caroline Nokes, called the UK Government to update the law to reflect the real threat of 21st-century property fraud. 

Three changes have been asked for: 

  1. The Land Registry to move swiftly to resolve these cases (without tribunal)
  2. The law to be updated to protect homeowners
  3. Homeowners to have recourse to reclaim their properties

In response, Penny Mordaunt MP promised to support her call and write to the Secretary of State. Propertymark will keep members updated on any changes to legislation. 

Protecting properties 

Empty, rented or properties without a mortgage are most at risk. Thankfully, there are some simple steps agents can explain to homeowners so their properties are protected. Crucially, homeowners must ensure that their contact details are where they live – not the empty or rented property.

If homeowners don’t have a mortgage and don’t live in the property, they can take out a restriction on the property via the Land Registry, which is free. This means that no one can do anything to the property without the owner’s express consent. 

These incidents highlight the important role property agents play in mitigating against fraud and the need to ask questions, check documentation and follow up on any unsatisfactory replies. Estate agents are legally required to carry out customer due diligence on all property buyers and sellers and importantly carry out ongoing monitoring under the Anti Money Laundering regulations. It’s also a requirement that they have written policies, controls and procedures in place as well as train staff regularly to manage risk to their business and make reports about suspicious activity to the National Crime Agency. Letting agents fall under the law where they are dealing with high value transactions with a monthly rent of 10,000 euros, or equivalent amount in the UK, or more.

However, in order not to fall foul of the Proceeds of Crime rules, all property agents and letting agents in particular who are not covered by the anti-money laundering legislation should be carrying out diligence checks on all their customers.

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Timothy Douglas Head of Policy and Campaigns | Propertymark
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