Inside terrifying scam which sees criminals STEAL your home and lock you out while they flog it on market

WHAT would you do if you arrived home from work to find a stranger on your doorstep instructing removal men on where to put the furniture in “their” new house? 

It’s every homeowner’s worst nightmare and one which is being played out in ITV’s new divorce drama Our House

Tuppence Middleton Plays Fi and Martin Compston plays Bran in the divorce drama

Tuppence Middleton Plays Fi and Martin Compston plays Bran in the divorce dramaCredit: ITV

Fi (Tuppence Middleton) comes home to find her house has been secretly sold

Fi (Tuppence Middleton) comes home to find her house has been secretly soldCredit: ITV

The four-part psychological thriller sees Tuppence Middleton play mum-of-two Fi Lawson, who discovers her house has been mysteriously sold without her knowledge.

The show is based on a 2019 Sunday Times bestselling novel of the same name by Louise Candlish – and while it’s a work of fiction, the story was inspired by a chilling real life property fraud case in 2015.

It saw a couple’s south west London home rented to a bogus tenant and then sold on his instructions using forged documents, with an accomplice posing as the owner who had changed her name to the owner’s by deed poll.

While it may sound far-fetched, it’s a sophisticated criminal scam that’s on the rise in the UK.

Louise previously told Criminal Element: “Properties have become overvalued, and people have become these accidental millionaires living in fairly average houses.

“At the same time, a whole terrible industry of property fraud has grown up. I really wanted to write about a crime that I hadn’t read about before in fiction.”

Colum Smith, a property fraud expert with RCP Innovation, tells The Sun: “Our House shines light on a growing problem because property fraud is a reality impacting rising numbers of people every year.”

Property fraud – caused by criminals who dupe solicitors, estate agents and the Land Registry – is a growing issue in Britain.

So-called property title fraud sees scammers obtain the title of a home, usually via identity theft, and change ownership to their name, enabling them to take out loans secured against the property or even sell it.

Last year the Land Registry revealed it paid out £3.5million in compensation for fraud and inaccuracies within its register between July 2019 and July 2020. 

But Colum insists government estimates for the money these criminals steal are “nowhere near the true scale of the losses we are seeing in the industry”. 

“It’s many, many millions of pounds more which fraudsters are stealing,” he says.

“These property cowboys are getting increasingly sophisticated and coming up with more and more elaborate ways to pull off their crimes that destroy lives.”

Duped out of £1.3million

Max and Penny Hastings were shocked to discover a stranger had moved into their house

Max and Penny Hastings were shocked to discover a stranger had moved into their houseCredit: NICK HOLT

Writer Max Hastings, 76, was left stunned when he received an email from a solicitor asking if his wife Penny had sold her pad in Fulham, west London in December 2015. 

Despite the couple having not put the property on the market, the lawyer told them his “client” had bought it for £1.3million mortgage-free.

The young woman – who had appeared “in distress” on his doorstep – had even secured the keys, opened utilities accounts and booked builders to install a new kitchen after receiving planning consent for alterations.

Mr Hastings told the Daily Mail: “We were appalled. What, in heaven’s name, was going on?”

They later discovered that Penny still owned the property, after the Land Registry had become suspicious and declined to register the sale.

But the young woman who had handed over a cheque for the house in good faith had been conned, with the vast sum on its way to a bank in Dubai.

When the Hastings reported the scam to the Metropolitan Police, they were told this type of major fraud is “increasingly common”.

According to the Government’s fraud teams, scammers typically target expensive properties where there is no mortgage and the landlord isn’t living locally.

You’re also more at risk if you’re renting out your property, if it’s vacant, or if you have not registered your home with HM Land Registry. 

‘Feared for safety’

Angela Ellis-Jones says a fraudster tried to steal her home

Angela Ellis-Jones says a fraudster tried to steal her homeCredit: JIM BENNETT

Less than 10 miles away in Sutton, South London, Angela Ellis-Jones experienced a similar ordeal. 

She bought a four-bedroom home for £345,000 in 2002, which has since more than doubled in value to £850K, and she’s now mortgage-free.

Angela first noticed something was awry when she returned home in September 2018 after spending three weeks with her mum in Wales to find her letterbox had been taped up and a metal postbox fitted to her front door.

“I could only believe someone was trying to intercept my mail to steal my identity,” she told the Daily Mail.

“The police were informed but they did not send anyone to investigate. Intercepting mail is a serious offence, and had they conducted an inquiry I could have joined up the dots sooner.”

The pandemic, which has seen more services shift online, has created a new world of opportunities for criminals

Jack Roberts, co-founder of Slothmove

Two months later Angela received a ‘completion of registration’ letter from the Land Registry informing her the house now belonged to a complete stranger.

“Someone had stolen my home!” she recalled. “After the reality sank in, I felt frightened and feared for my safety. With a house worth this much, what lengths would they go to get me out of the way?”

Angela faced a lengthy battle to get her home back, and at times she said she felt like the law was on the criminal’s side. 

When the case faced going to a Lands Tribunal, the fraudster knew the “game was up” and let Angela reclaim her house, and after months of stress she was told it belonged to her again in February 2019.

Pandemic ‘made it worse’

In November last year, the Reverend Mike Hall discovered his home had been stolen by fraudsters and sold for £131K to a new owner when he returned from an extended work trip.

The first he knew about it was when neighbours called him saying someone was in the house.

When he got home his front door key wouldn’t work and a stranger answered when he knocked.

It turned out the scammer had set up a bank account in his name and ordered a duplicate driving licence which they used to sell the house. Eventually the police investigated the case as fraud and a man was arrested.

Jack Roberts, co-founder of Slothmove, tells The Sun that property fraud is becoming a “bigger and bigger problem” – further exacerbated by Covid.

“The pandemic, which has seen more services shift online, has created a new world of opportunities for criminals,” he explains.

“Homeowners need to be on their guard now more than ever before. If something looks odd, challenge it. Fraudsters rely upon inaction, trust and naivety.”

Lost £45K and dream home

It’s not just homeowners who are at risk; buyers can also fall victim to scammers. 

Nikhil Dudeja and his wife Richa had saved up £45,000 for a deposit to buy their dream home in 2019.

The purchase was going well, and while they were on holiday Nikhil received an email from his ‘solicitor’ asking for the deposit to be paid. 

He went into his Lloyds banking app and transferred the sum over in two payments.

But scammers had hacked into the estate agent’s email system and created a fake email from his lawyer, telling him where to send the £45,000.

Rather than sending the cash to his solicitor, it instead went into a bogus HSBC account set up by scammers. Afterwards Lloyds refused to refund the couple, while HSBC also denied liability.

Dudeja told The Guardian: “This whole experience has been devastating… It was the perfect scam.”

How to avoid scammers

Jonathan Rolande, from House Buy Fast, recommends reducing the risk when buying or selling a property by always using professionals and meeting people where possible in person.

“Ensure your agent is legitimate by checking them out on an Ombudsman website,” he says. “All agents must be a member of one of the schemes.

“Do this whether you are buying or selling. Your solicitor should be chosen thanks to good, professional service, not just because they are cheap.

“They will be your most important line of defence against fraudsters. If you can, meet the buyer or seller of the house personally. It’s often easy to spot suspicious behaviour in person. 

“Get to know the neighbours. It’s useful to know who’s next door and they might know something useful – for example, that the property is rented or that the owner has recently died.

“Never trust an email or letter that asks for money. Mail can be intercepted and bank numbers changed.

“Always call on a trusted number to check that the account number you’re paying is genuine.”

You can also safeguard your property by applying to put a restriction on title deeds of your property, preventing the Land Registry from registering a sale or mortgage unless a conveyancer or solicitor certifies that the application was made by you.

A spokesperson from HM Land Registry told The Sun that homeowners can protect themselves if they sign up to their free Property Alert service

They said: “When a property owner signs up for property alert, email alerts are sent when official searches and applications are received against a monitored property.

“Official searches are completed ahead of most property sales when the buyer or lender’s conveyancer searches the Land Register for information relating to that property.”

Fi suspects her estranged husband Bram (Martin Compston) is behind the fraud in the drama

Fi suspects her estranged husband Bram (Martin Compston) is behind the fraud in the dramaCredit: ITV


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