The ability to access the title to any property and the increased incidence of property fraud, has opened a whole new can of worms. However, Gary Score from law firm Hart Brown, says there are safeguards that can be put in place to protect your property.
Anyone can obtain a copy of the title to a property. Prior to December 1990, if the title to a home or other property was registered at the Land Registry it was not open to public scrutiny. This had been the position since the late 19th Century when the concept of Registered Land was first introduced.
In the main it was necessary to get consent as the owner, before a prospective purchaser could have access to the register. Such consent was usually given after exchange of contracts in the property sale.
In order to allow developers and other interested parties to identify the ownership of land more easily, the registered title was opened up to the public to allow anybody to find out, where land is registered, who the owner of the land is and obtain a copy of that persons title together with details of any covenants, rights, obligations and easements registered against the title together with any mortgages.
In 2002 all registered titles in England and Wales were digitised and the old paper Land Certificates and Charges certificates became redundant. Roll forward to today and the digitisation of the registered titles, subject to payment of the necessary fee to the Land Registry, anyone can access the title to a property. This, added to the increased incidence of identity fraud, has opened a new avenue to possible fraudsters.
There have been a number of instances reported in the press of fraudsters posing as the owners of registered property and selling it on to an unsuspecting buyer. Whilst the fraudster is not able to pass the ownership of the property to the innocent buyer, one can imagine the anxiety the legitimate owner goes through as a result of being the victim of this type of crime. The innocent buyer stands to lose all of the monies paid over to the fraudster who needless to say will usually disappear into the ether.
So how easy is it for fraud to take place?
Initially the fraudster needs to steal the identity of and masquerade as the owner of the targeted property. The Estate Agent and Solicitor must by law carry out identity checks on potential sellers, however’ if their processes are less than robust, this makes the fraudster’s task that much easier and adds an air of legitimacy to their scheme.
What can be done?
It makes sense for a home owner to take certain steps to reduce the risk of the property being fraudulently sold or, in some cases, mortgaged. Properties that are particularly at risk are those where the owner does not live there because they live overseas or in some other part of the country, rent it out, the property is empty for long periods and not mortgaged.
The Land Registry has devised two main ways to try to alleviate the situation:
- The placing of a restriction on a title so that no changes can be made to the Register without a solicitor or conveyancer certifying that the application is made by the registered proprietor. If the owner does not live at the property this is free; if they live at the property there is a fee of £40.
- You can also sign up to the Property Alert Service. If someone applies to change the register to a property the owner will be alerted by e-mail. It will not stop the changes, but makes one aware of activity on the title.
Progress brings with it advantages but also new risks. Any steps the owner of a property can take to reduce those risks are recommended.