How to stop a fraudster from making themselves at home – the fake ‘sister’ who tried to sell Marie’s house.
Did you hear about the recent story of the Reverend who came home to find his entire house had been stolen?
You may not think this can happen to you, but the Land Registry confirms that around £3.5m was paid out to victims of similar crimes.
Here at Versus Law Solicitors we had a similar matter, but thanks to our eagle-eyed conveyancers in Manchester, the fraudsters were out of luck in this attempt to steal someone’s home! Throughout the fraud, the real homeowner, who we will call Marie, was totally unaware that a fraudster was trying to sell her house behind her back.
The story was covered by BBC News and was featured on Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ programme. Investigative Journalist Shari Vahl should be commended for her work in highlighting this transaction, and in particular the Office of Public Guardianship’s lack of checking procedures when a Lasting Power of Attorney is issued. The article and the radio programme can be found here:
In this blog, we will tell you what tactics the fraudsters used, how the scam was spotted, then prevented; and give you tips on how you can protect yourself and your property from similar scams. Our homes are our most valued possessions and should be protected.
Setting the scene
- Versus Law Solicitors were instructed by a person claiming to be called Julie in March 2021 to sell the property.
- The fraudster pretended to be Homeowner’s sister and presented us with a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) allegedly given to her by her ‘sister’, Marie, giving her full authority to sell the house in her ‘sister’s’ name.
- The fraudster then provided her own ID and the LPA to us and signed relevant documentation.
This is a normal start to selling a property, however, it was noted when setting up the file that a vulnerable person could be involved as an LPA had been presented by the fraudster. As such, the matter was escalated to a senior staff member for consideration. Whenever we spoke to the fraudster, we were concerned by her demeanor and what she was saying. She told us that her sister was not well and that is why the LPA was entered into. We asked for her ‘sister’s’ ID and confirmation that she lacked capacity. This evidence was never provided.
When the buyer’s (fraudster) solicitor came on record it was also noted that a company was buying the property, not an individual, whilst this can be a normal occurrence, when combined with the LPA it made this an unusual conveyancing sale.
Our Investigations and concerns
In the middle of April 2021, the Fraudster was again asked for the Homeowner’s ID and their consent, as these had not been provided yet.
The fraudster rang and queried these requests, saying she had not been asked to provide these before. This suggests that she may have tried a similar scan previously. She was informed that ID was mandatory; and that Marie still needs to give verbal or written consent to the sale as we did not know that she lacked capacity.
This was flagged up by both Nicola Nolan and Natalie Moylan, senior conveyancers in our property department. A request for ID and confirmation of capacity should have been easy to comply with if the LPA was valid and was clearly being avoided by the fraudster.
The fraudster waited a couple of days and then called in again saying that her ‘sister’ was not sound of mind and could not give consent. She was using every excuse she could to avoid providing the requested documents, hoping we would let it slide and proceed with the transaction.
At this point due to our previous concerns, the way the Fraudster had been evasive and after discussion with the Managing Partner of the Firm, Waqas Chaudhri, further investigations were carried out and all work on the file was put on immediate hold.
- The LPA appeared to have been drafted/signed/witnessed by the same person all the way through – the witnesses and Marie’s signature appeared to have been done by the same hand.
- The veracity of the LPA could not be checked online.
- Searches found that the names listed in the LPA did not match up to any of the neighbours who were listed as witnesses.
- The buying company’s main address seemed to be just a correspondence address and not offices.
These factors, together with our growing list of concerns, the decision was made to only work on this matter once contact with the homeowner had been made. For the matter to be placed on the risk register of the company so that it can managed and monitored to the upmost of detail by a senior member of the firm.
Enquiries were made to ascertain the real owners’ details so that contact could be made and Marie was advised that the fraudsters were trying to sell her home. We requested that the management company send the management pack directly to the homeowner. As her managing agents, they would have her direct contact details and email, etc, meaning she would be notified.
Shortly after Versus Law did this, the Fraudster rang to say they were no longer instructing us and requested the management pack be sent directly to the address (this is because they had already gained illegal access to the property, something we found out later).
Red Flags spotted by Versus Law
During the attempted transaction by the fraudster, we spotted the following potential red flags.
- Selling an unencumbered property (no mortgage)
- Legal Power of Attorney being used, fraudster applied for LPA themselves
- The LPA was suspect, similar handwriting, could not be checked and the witnesses looked fictitious
- Transactional distance
- Property being bought by a Company
- The property was owned but not lived in currently by the owner
- Buyers’ estate agent was 100 miles from buyer and property
- The fraudster did not provide ID, consent, or any correspondence from the homeowner
- Could not provide medical evidence that the homeowner was no longer of sound mind
- The buyer offered to pay the seller’s legal fees
- Wanted proceeds to go into a bank account other than the homeowner’s
Whilst there may be a valid reason for these in most transactions, we were not convinced by the fraudster’s explanations and the lack of evidence in support.
What happened next?
The homeowner contacted Versus Law once they had received the homeowners pack, they were in quite a shock as it was the first they had heard of anything. Imagine finding out that a fraudster had tried to sell your house behind your back!
Marie told us that she went to check on the property to find that the locks on the house had been drilled out and changed by the fraudster! This allowed them to access the property as if they were the homeowner on any visits, and for the interception of any mail being sent to the property (which is why the fraudster asked us to send the management pack directly to the property).
Versus Law told Marie exactly what had happened so far and continues to assist her in bringing the fraudster to justice.
Reporter, Shari Vahl, came in to speak with us and has taken up an investigation into this matter and discussed it and a similar fraud that happened on her weekly show, You& Yours, on BBC Radio 4. The investigation was also covered by BBC News.
A message from Marie:
“Just a quick email to say a big “Thank You” for taking part in the Radio 4 You&Yours programme. It’s great to read that you’ll be publishing a blog on this, too, as my main reason for contacting the BBC was to raise awareness among the legal and financial communities of the need to be cautious about taking the LPA document at face value – and hopefully prompt discussion about what needs to change. While trying to find help, I contacted lots of law firms: not one of them had a clue that this document could be forged, and each of them initially expressed disbelief. ”
How you can protect yourself?
This scam mainly involves properties that do not have an outstanding mortgage against them. This removes an extra financial layer to the scam and could easily mean the correct owner is contacted.
The quickest and most important thing that every homeowner should do is sign up to a free Land registry service called Property Alerts. You will receive an email that would alert you at the first instance any action is taken in relation to your property. In our view, whilst this is a good first step, you may be alerted when it is too late to act ie. After the property has been sold. The emails may also go into your junk folder, which may not be checked until it is too late.
A better option is to place an anti-fraud restriction on your home so that if a transfer is attempted, you will be contacted and can ensure it is legitimate before it happens. This service costs £40 but will secure your position much more. It is still not 100% effective though. For example, if a fraudster got hold of your ID, or replicated your ID, then they could pretend to be you and apply to remove the restriction when selling your home.
The best option, in our opinion, would be for a solicitor or conveyancer to be required to remove the restriction. This can be your own solicitor, so you can be assured that your property is sold only if you want it to be.
You can find out more from HM Land Registry’s website using the following link:
We are always here to help, and if you have any questions regarding placing a restriction on your home or any other property related matter, please contact us.
Versus Law Solicitors
10 Lapwing Lane
0161 249 5087