New on TV: Property Fraud

What is ITV’s Our House about?

If you settled down to watch the latest ITV thriller Our House last night, you might well find yourself worried about fraud or your property being stolen out from under you.

Based on the 2018 thriller novel by Louise Candlish, she was inspired by the true story of Penny Hastings, who nearly lost her investment property to ‘house hijacking’ in 2015.

What is house hijacking?

Penny Hastings owned a house in Fulham, West London which she rented out through an agent to a female con-artist, who changed her name to Penny Hastings by deed poll. This fake Penny Hastings then posed as the real owner and started the sales process using forged documentation.

By the time the crime was discovered, the new owner already had the keys, consent for renovations and a builder ready to start. While Penny was able to reclaim her property, the victim of the crime was the purchases, who had paid £1.35million in case for the property and never saw her money again.

House jacking is a high value fraud – as we know, property is an expensive investment and only increases in value as the years roll by. More and more people are falling victim to these crimes and many have been investigated by the Met’s cybercrime unit, known as Falcon, and several people have been arrested over the years.

During the lockdowns of 2020-21, The Land Registry had to pay out £3.5milion in compensation for 22 claims regarding property fraud. This varied from forging documents and transferring a home into a relative’s name to a stranger impersonating the homeowner and selling the property to an unsuspecting buyer.

Am I at risk of house jacking?

You may be doing everything right, from all the legal certification to Rent Guarantee and Home Emergency Insurance. But unfortunately, landlords and second-home owners are at a higher risk of this type of fraud than residential homeowners because they are not in their property. Unless you have worked to build a relationship with your tenant and perform regular inspections, you might not find out until it’s too late.

Fraudsters target cash buyers because these are quicker sales, so they are less likely to get caught, and mortgage lenders do a lot more checks that would flag any issues. They rent out the home from the property owner, so they are on site for any post or viewings, and pose as the homeowner to potential buyers.

Unfortunately, some landlords or second-home owners have been known to leave sensitive information and documents – sometimes even passports! – in their rental or second-home, making the con-artist’s job even easier.

It’s a sophisticated scam, but one that is financially crippling for the buyer and stressful for the real owner of the property.

How can I protect myself?

There are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Sign up to Land Registry’s free alerts. This only takes a moment and means you’ll be aware if someone is trying to transfer the ownership of your property into their name, so you can nip the crime in the bud
  • Be careful of sensitive information. Whether you’re a landlord or second-home owner, do not store anything of value outside of your residential home. However inconvenient it might be, keep passports and sensitive documents in your home, where you know they’re safe and can check on them if need be
  • Educate yourself. We’re hosting a webinar on Friday 25th March at 3pm, with Tony Sales, fraudster-turned-loss-prevention-expert. Join us to find out more about house jacking, as well as other fraud-based crimes that landlords are vulnerable too
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