Most people can’t believe their ears whenever Donna Jeavons tells her story.
- You buy a property in good faith
- You take out a mortgage to buy the property
- You use good reputable solicitors and everything is done correctly
- You find out three months later that it was a stolen house that you bought, plus there’s £30,000 worth of internal damage!
When she mentioned it to me, I too couldn’t believe it, so that’s why I felt compelled to ask Donna about the scam and write this article. Although Donna is dealing with a very stressful situation, she’s determined to bring some good out of her plight by launching a campaign to raise public awareness and help stop this happening to other people.
Here’s the incredible story…
Donna and her best friend Amanda bought a buy-to-let property from a trusted source in October 2010. It was a great deal, with no work required to the property, and it even came with an existing tenant. Problems first started in December 2010 when the rent wasn’t paid and after going through the correct procedures to access and check the property, to their shock and horror they found that the house had been systematically vandalised:
- Carpets gone
- Bathroom gone
- Kitchen gone
- Gas fires gone
- Radiators gone
- Boiler stripped
- Plug sockets gone
- Light switches gone
- Electricial wires cut so high up in sockets and light switches that it now requires a full re-wire
- Floor boards lifted
- Some internal doors gone
- Ceilings damaged
- Inside of house painted black
Donna described the wrecked house as looking like “hell on earth”. Luckily, Donna and Amanda had taken out a comprehensive Landlord’s Insurance policy for the property which covered malicious damage. A claim was initiated and quotes gathered for the works to be done, totaling £30,000!
At this time Donna and Amanda were totally unaware of the second, even BIGGER shock that was about to hit them…
In the New Year they were notified of a police investigation surrounding the house, not because of the malicious damage – as they initially thought – but because a man claiming to be the “real” owner of the property had contacted the police to say that his house had been sold without his knowledge or permission! So if this man was telling the truth, then Donna and Amanda had not only purchased a stolen house, but even worse – they were now implicated in a fraud case meaning that they swiftly went from being victims of vandalism to defendants of fraud!
The severity of this second shock soon hit home as they began to ask themselves:
- How can we have bought a stolen house?
- We did everything correctly. We used a reputable firm of solicitors so how could they have allowed this to happen?
- The solicitors that represented the seller were also a respected local firm, so how could they have got it wrong?
- If the house is proven to be stolen, what happens to the mortgage we have taken out – who is going to repay it?
- Whilst the case is investigated do we have to keep paying the mortgage?
- Should and can we repair the damage to the house whilst the investigation continues so that at least we can re-let it to cover our monthly costs?
- Will our insurers pay out if the house is suspected as being stolen?
The alleged real owner of the property has now applied to the Land Registry to get the title back on the property. Donna and Amanda have therefore had no choice but to legally challenge this because they bought the property in good faith and had taken out a mortgage to purchase the property.
Six months down the line, they are no further forward. They don’t know how or when their property nightmare is going to end. So far it has cost them over £5,000 in civil litigation fees, with the prospect of more legal costs looming in the future.
As Donna and Amanda feel the situation is totally out of their control, they have both taken action and are launching a nationwide campaign with two objectives:
1) To make the general public aware of this new and fast growing fraud
2) To suggest a solution to make the conveyancing process more robust.
What the Solicitors Say: This is what Paul Gelder of MS Law has to say about this subject:
MS LAW SOLICITORS have been selected to provide legal support to the campaign and to view their article BUYING FRESH AIR click on the link: http://www.stolenhomes.co.uk
The article highlights many of the flaws and risks you are unwittingly exposed to and will help you avid becomming a victim of property fraud.
This is what Mike Alexander of Alexander lawyers has to say about this subject:
“One of our clients has recently had a fairly similar problem. Fortunately for that client the outcome was slightly different, and that particular client is left with a claim against the compensation fund run by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. Whilst that particular client will recover their money, it is unlikely they will recover their costs in full or the interest they have had to pay out on money borrowed, but most importantly they will never recover the damage to their reputation.
This is what Richard Spencer of BPE has to say about this subject:
Fortunately, I haven’t had first-hand experience of any fraudulent cases but, whilst shocked to hear Donna and Amanda’s story, I’m not that surprised. As anybody can access the Land Registry’s title register, it is hardly surprising that criminals are taking advantage. We can’t search the Passport Agency or DVLA’s register, so why can we search the register which records ownership of the most valuable assets we own?
To protect against fraud and money laundering, solicitors must obtain identification for all new clients and a good firm will not rely on photocopies. As Dean says, we’re not qualified to spot forged ID but we do offer electronic ID checks in addition to obtaining original ID. These checks will verify the client’s name against several registers including the passport agency, DVLA, electoral roll and others. If any of the original documents have been stolen or the supplied ID is fake, the online system should alert us. The system will only work if the documents are fake or the relevant agency is aware that an original document has been lost or stolen. In Donna and Amanda’s case, the owner of the document did not know his identity has been stolen, so the online ID checker would not have notified the solicitor.
One simple action all investors should take is to notify the Land Registry of three addresses for service, two of which can be email addresses. If anybody attempts to alter your title, you should receive an email from the Land Registry.
Another solution, albeit an unpopular one due to cost, is to take out a title insurance policy at the time of purchase. For a one-off premium of around £100, you can obtain cover of up to £250,000 against a number of risks including identity fraud. Investors should check if their existing insurance policy covers such risks before paying for an additional policy.
This is what Paul Ribbons Expert property Trader has to say on the matter:
I was flabbergasted when I heard of Donna’s predicament, in 25 years I have never heard of anything like this. When hearing the news I spoke to my lawyer who confirmed this is a crime that is growing fast due to electronic procedures and its costing many buyers Thousands of pounds, thief’s are very sophisticated now a days. It makes it very hard for people to have faith in a system that is obviously flawed and needs to be updated to keep up with modern practices.
We must pull together to try and prevent this happening in the future to others.
I pledge my support to your cause Donna.
A growing problem
Since the Electronic Title Deed became available to download in 2003, this cost of this fraud has increased tenfold. In 2004-05 there were 15 cases reported by the Land Registry which resulted in them paying out £491,656 in compensation, in 2009-10 this increased to 53 claims resulting in the Land Registry having to pay out £4.9million.
How can you protect yourself?
Fraudsters tend to target properties that have no mortgages on them, so if you own a property that without a mortgage, Donna’s research on the internet suggests to protect yourself that you get a solicitor that you know and trust to enter a restriction on your title deed. By doing this, if someone does attempt to sell your house they will not be able to until the restriction is removed from your title deed, and you would have to give your permission for this to happen. So by doing this you can stop any potential fraudster in their tracks.
How can you help?
Donna says: “Something has to be done urgently to make the conveyancing process more robust and to stop fraudsters getting away with this crime, leaving innocent victims to carry the financial cost and emotional trauma of dealing with the consequences”.
Today the property remains uninhabitable as the insurance claim for the malicious damage is on hold because of the dispute over the title. Donna and Amanda still have to pay the mortgage and more funds have to be found for the on-going legal representation in the dispute, with no immediate sign of light at the end of the tunnel. Meanwhile the pair are focusing on publicising this little-known scam with the hope of preventing anyone else becoming a victim.