Following a shocking case, Ansons Solicitors, a prominent law firm in the West Midlands, has addressed growing concerns about property fraud resulting from identity theft.
The case involves Reverend Mike Hall, who discovered his Luton house sold and stripped of all furnishings without his knowledge, highlighting the urgent need for legal awareness and action in such scenarios.
Reverend Mike Hall, working in North Wales, was alerted by neighbours on 20 August about unusual activity at his Luton property.
Upon his return, he found the locks changed and his house completely emptied of all furnishings, including carpets and curtains.
A man at the property claimed to be conducting building work for the new owner, who asserted ownership, having allegedly purchased the house in July.
Initially, the police deemed the situation a civil matter, advising Reverend Hall to leave the property and consult his solicitors.
However, after the BBC‘s intervention, Bedfordshire Police’s fraud squad initiated an investigation.
No arrests have been made yet. The case highlights property fraud and the challenges victims face in seeking immediate legal recourse.
The Land Registry, which paid out £3.5 million in compensation for fraud last year, emphasises its reliance on professional conveyancers to detect fraudulent activities. Despite strict measures, a small number of fraudulent transactions still occur annually.
“Law firms should be alert to the risk that identity theft could lead to property fraud,” said Louise Palmer, Associate Solicitor at Ansons. “Steps must be taken to ensure clients are properly identified, and any suspicions regarding transactions, such as instructions only being provided by email, or sudden changes to instructions, are fully investigated”.
In cases where property fraud occurs, immediate action is crucial. “For instances involving squatters, the rightful owner has only 28 days from becoming aware of the occupation to file for an Interim Possession Order,” she adds.
To prevent similar incidents, HM Land Registry offers several services. “Property owners can sign up for alerts on any attempts to change their property’s title, enabling them to act swiftly against any fraudulent actions,” explains Louise.
Additionally, owners can place a restriction on their property’s title, requiring a conveyancer or solicitor’s certification for any sale or mortgage. “Registering unregistered properties and keeping the address for service updated on the title register are also vital steps,” she advises.
In situations where a property has been sold fraudulently and squatters have taken residence, the rightful owner must take decisive legal action. “The owner should issue a claim for possession on trespass grounds and ideally ask the occupiers to leave in writing before proceeding,” said Louise. The claim can include a court declaration of rightful ownership.
“An Interim Possession Order (IPO) is an effective remedy in squatting cases,” Louise explains. “Once obtained, it requires the defendant to vacate within 24 hours and prohibits their return for a year.
“If the defendant fails to comply with the IPO then they may be guilty of a criminal offence which can carry a prison sentence of up to six months, a fine of up to £5,000 or both. This gives the rightful owner an added level of protection.”
Owners who suffer financial losses due to squatting and property damage following identity theft and fraudulent sale have options for compensation. “They may apply for compensation from HM Land Registry and, in some cases, may be able to seek damages from solicitors if due diligence was not observed,” Louise concludes.
Ansons Solicitors remains committed to providing expert legal guidance and support to those affected by property fraud. For more information or legal assistance, please contact Ansons Solicitors here.