Property scams – UK
Recently NAPB (National Association of Property Buyers) has collaborated with Gumtree to bring fraud awareness to all the students seeking accommodation for the upcoming school year. Gumtree found that this year there is an unprecedented demand for student accommodation, especially in university cities like Edinburgh. The selling portal states that right they have received 25 replies per advert! The sudden surge in demand and lack of supply of rental properties leads to increased levels of fraudulent activity. Fake landlords, fake bank details, first month’s rent stolen, the list goes on. Active Fraud has reported that there were nearly 6,000 people scammed last year alone! But not only renters are in danger.
Everybody is at risk of being scammed, and fraudsters’ methods are becoming more sophisticated day by day.
Below we have prepared a summary of the most common property frauds that we are observing on the UK property market.
While all types of properties and property owners can be susceptible to fraud, certain types are at a higher risk:
- Unoccupied properties are more vulnerable.
The mere fact that a property is vacant can make it an appealing target for fraudsters.
- Rental properties are more at risk.
A tenant might pose as the owner, acquire identification at the address, and access the owner’s mail. The risk is even greater when the landlord resides abroad.
- Properties for sale are at an elevated risk.
Fraudsters can more easily obtain information about these properties. They can gather details about the owner, estate agents, solicitors, banks, and mortgage companies involved, and exploit them all to perpetrate fraud.
- Properties owned outright without mortgages could be at higher risk, as they hold equity that can be targeted.
- Properties not registered with the Land Registry are more exposed, lacking a registered title and official record of legal ownership.
- Properties owned by elderly individuals may be more targeted, as fraudsters assume they are less vigilant against fraud.
Types of fraud:
Type of Fraud: Bogus Property Websites
Risk: There’s a danger that any website related to property could be fraudulent. Websites that appear as genuine businesses offering services like an estate agent, agency, property development, property investment, cash house purchase, finance and insurance, and property legal services may be fake. These websites could be used to sell you fraudulent products or services, or they could aim to steal your personal information or identity, which is equally serious.
How to Protect Yourself: Exercise caution with unfamiliar brand websites. Look for a contact or registered phone number you can call and check for a physical address. If it’s a limited company, verify it with Companies House. If they claim memberships with professional or regulatory bodies (e.g., Propertymark or the Financial Conduct Authority), verify these with the respective organisations.
Type of Fraud: Phishing
Risk: Phishing is a kind of fraud that aims to steal your information, often for larger-scale fraud. While it can manifest in various contexts, it’s particularly common in banking and finance.
Phishing typically involves fraudsters using emails, text messages, or social media notifications to prompt you to visit a counterfeit website. This site may resemble your online banking, another online account, or your email provider. If you input your personal details, the fraudsters can access your account and misuse it for fraud, possibly even impersonating you to defraud others.
How to Protect Yourself: Exercise caution regarding emails, texts, or notifications urging you to visit a site and provide information, even if you’re familiar with the site. Don’t click on links in such messages. Ensure any site you share information with is secure (look for the padlock symbol) and has the correct HTTPS address.
Type of Fraud: Pharming
Risk: Pharming occurs in various contexts, especially in banking and finance.
Pharming is a variant of phishing. The main difference is that fraudsters don’t necessarily prompt you to visit a fake site through notifications or messages. Pharming is a cyber attack often initiated by a computer virus. When you visit a legitimate site, the virus redirects you to a fake site where you’re prompted to enter passwords or personal data, which the fraudsters then exploit.
How to Protect Yourself: Ensure your device has up-to-date antivirus protection. Even on sites you trust, verify that each page you enter data into has the correct HTTPS address and is secure.
Type of Fraud: Intercepting Funds
Risk: Funds interception can occur when you’re purchasing a property and need to transfer funds (deposit or full payment) to your solicitor or conveyancer for them to pay the seller’s solicitor or conveyancer confirms back.
In this scenario, a fraudster may pose as your solicitor, sending you an email with their bank details, leading you to transfer money to their account unintentionally instead of your solicitor’s.
Funds interception can also involve email hacking, where fraudsters gain access to solicitors’ or sellers’ email accounts and send fake emails from these genuine accounts. .
How to Protect Yourself: Double-check your solicitor’s or conveyancer’s bank details using a trusted phone number. Be extremely cautious if you receive an email regarding a “change of bank details.”
Type of Fraud: Fraudsters Posing as Buyers
Risk: Fraudsters impersonate potential buyers for your property. They inquire about your property, asking numerous questions about both the property and yourself, similar to legitimate buyers. They might even make an offer (and later retract) to gather more information.
These details are then exploited for identity theft, impersonation, or other types of title fraud. The fraud might not directly involve your property.
How to Protect Yourself: Be careful when sharing information with potential buyers, regardless of their apparent friendliness and authenticity.
Type of Fraud: Selling Without Consent (Swocking)
Risk: Fraudsters attempt to sell your property without your knowledge or consent. They obtain information allowing them to impersonate the genuine owner and legally sell or transfer the title deeds or property through conventional conveyancing channels.
Swocking can involve phishing, impersonation, identity theft, or even phishing. It’s a form of title fraud where the fraudster unlawfully alters the property’s legal title. In some cases, tenants of rented properties may also engage in title fraud. Being residents, they have access to information that aids their scheme.
Instead of selling, fraudsters might try transferring ownership to their name (or a false identity) and either sell the property or retain it. This is trickier to detect since the fraudster is both the seller and buyer, and the buyer’s solicitor inadvertently not register a sale unless he works for the fraudster.
This type of fraud can also affect buyers purchasing from someone who isn’t the actual owner. The solicitor processing the sale and the unsuspecting buyer are victims of this fraud, in addition to the legitimate owner.
How to Protect Yourself: Guard against phishing or pharming. Secure your personal information and documents. Only share information with those who need it and ensure their authenticity before sharing. Use mail redirection when selling or renting your property.
Type of Fraud: Mortgaging Without Consent (Mwocking)
Risk: Mwocking is akin to swocking, where fraudsters seek to secure a mortgage or loan using your property as collateral. They then disappear with the funds.
Your property isn’t lost, but a debt is tied to it. Again, mwocking often coincides with other frauds like phishing, identity theft, or impersonation. Fraudsters gather information and documents to pose as the true owner, applying for and securing a mortgage or loan using the property.
Mwocking is also a form of title fraud, and both the lender and the property owner fall victim.
How to Protect Yourself: Guard against phishing or pharming. Keep personal information and documents secure. Periodically check your credit files with credit reference agencies to detect any unauthorized credit checks or applications.
Type of Fraud: Money Laundering Scams
Risk: Criminals with illicitly obtained money might attempt to “launder” it through seemingly legitimate transactions. Property is a target, as are high-value assets like cars, jewelry, or art.
How to Protect Yourself: Estate agents and solicitors must adhere to anti-money laundering laws in property transactions. Sellers should also watch out for buyers attempting to bypass these laws, such as through direct cash payments outside the agreed property price.
Type of Fraud: Investment Scams
Risk: Investment property scams can come in various forms. Fraudsters might sell off-plan property developments, requesting deposits or payments before completion, then disappear or declare bankruptcy.
They could also sell land based on anticipated value increases, especially with the promise of future development, despite unlikely planning permission.
While not all investment opportunities are scams, there’s inherent risk.
How to Protect Yourself: Be skeptical of property investments promising high returns with minimal risk or effort. Conduct thorough due diligence before investing and consider seeking legal advice.
There way ways to avoid being scammed, but as we mentioned before, the methods are so refined that even the most suspicious person may not be able to avoid it.
Some of the ways to avoid it:
– Adhere to the saying “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Be cautious of investments promising unrealistically high returns or buyers/tenants offering more than reasonable for your property.
– When in doubt, verify. If you’re unsure about the authenticity of a website, email, letter, or call, confirm using contact details from a reliable source.
– Ensure your property is registered with HM Land Registry. Older or inherited properties may not be.
– Keep your contact details up-to-date with HM Land Registry for your properties.
– Enroll in HM Land Registry’s Property Alert Service (Tel. 0300 006 0478), which is free. This service notifies you of searches or applications related to your property.
– Apply a restriction to your property with HM Land Registry. This prompts solicitors handling your property’s sale to perform additional identity checks on the seller. Consider seeking legal advice before proceeding.
– Stay informed about the latest property fraud types and schemes. Action Fraud periodically provides such information.