Agents are warned to be on their guard against an identity fraud sting by which criminals successfully collect cash for sales of homes that the crooks never owned.
There have been “many” cases investigated in London in the past few months, with the Metropolitan Police reporting four.
A fifth looks to concern the veteran war reporter Max Hastings, who has found himself with another battle on his hands after a rental property owned by his wife was caught in a £1.3m sting.
The fraudsters target unmortgaged properties with absentee owners.
It is not a new sting but it does highlight the importance of using the Land Registry’s service which alerts property owners to unusual activity.
The Hastings home in Fulham was first let to a fraudulent tenant and then sold on his instructions, with the help of an accomplice.
The bogus tenant appears to have taken someone else’s legitimate identity, with the woman accomplice posing as the seller, Max Hasting’s wife Penny.
The unsuspecting purchaser paid the full £1.3m in cash and has lost it. The money is said to be in a bank in Dubai.
The lettings agent was not named by Hastings, writing at the weekend in the Mail, but the agent that arranged the sale was identified as Foxtons.
The lettings agent – apparently being roasted by Penny Hastings’ lawyer “over a slow fire and they are not quite cooked” – let the property to a Kevin Hafter.
Hafter wanted a two-year lease and made all his payments in cash.
His references were provided through a referencing agent named as Van Mildert.
As soon as Hafter took possession of the property, it was placed with Foxtons for sale. Hafter claimed to be acting on behalf of Mrs Hastings.
According to the Mail article, a price was swiftly agreed and a firm of licensed conveyanceres acted for the alleged seller.
A woman in south London masqueraded as Mrs Hastings. She changed her name to Penelope Hastings by deed poll and secured a passport, allowing Foxtons to check out the seller – although Hastings alleges that a photocopy sufficed, without the woman actually having to appear.
Steve Bilton, managing director of the credit referencing agency Van Mildert, said he was satisfied the firm had robust processes in place, but would co-operate with any investigation to the fullest possible extent.
Foxtons said that the woman vendor had been in possession of a genuine passport, and added: “This case highlights the east with which criminals appear to be able to establish new, credible identities and is something we believe needs to be addressed nationally.”
In the Hastings’ case, as reported in the Mail, several other issues emerge: the Land Registry did not allow the transaction to go through, selling a rat, which means that Mrs Hastings still owns the property, although the buyer has lost £1.3m.
Also, the unnamed lettings agent says it cannot refund the deposit “Mr Hafner” paid without his consent.
The case also highlights just how difficult agents may well find identity verification under the Right to Rent regime which kicks in on February 1.
As to the all-important Land Registry service that alerts property owners to unusual activity, the link is here
The service can be used by non-owners as well – for example, family members, and professionals acting for the owner.
Vulnerable properties are considered to include any property that is unmortgaged and which has an absentee owner – for example, rented homes; homes where the owner has moved abroad; empty homes up for sale where the owner has moved into care; and probate properties.