While most people are familiar with the concept of identity theft, they may not be aware that fraudsters also target property titles. By impersonating a property owner, criminals can take out a mortgage on a property they do not own, keep the money and leave the real owners in terrible debt.
This kind of property title theft has resulted in the Land Registry paying out millions of pounds in compensation.
Since 2006 the Land Registry, the government's department for recording land ownership in England and Wales, has reported losses of more than £26million in compensation payments to victims of property title fraud.
Last year, in 53 different cases of property fraud, the Land Registry lost £4.51million and the year before that £4.23million was lost on 62 cases.
Property title fraud is a difficult crime to spot since most owners have no idea what is happening until they try to sell their property.
In one particularly high-profile case, the Land Registry was required to pay out roughly £8million to two property developers who were fraudulently sold a 47-acre Berkshire estate.
Four pensioners had lodged forged documents with the Land Registry, allowing them to masquerade as the owners and swindle £6.5million from the developers in 2004.
The Land Registry claims that the act of fraud is usually committed before they even become involved in the sale of a property.
Their spokesman said: "We believe the majority of property frauds are perpetrated before registration: for example by impersonating the registered proprietor and obtaining a mortgage, a transaction which Land Registry would have no involvement with until after the money had been forwarded by the lender and the fraud had been successfully completed."
However until 2003, the Land Registry issued watermarked land certificates as proof of ownership, but these were done away with after the introduction of an online system. The Land Registry is reluctant to address this issue publicly, despite denying that "abolishing certificates caused more fraud".
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, confidential internal Registry emails concerning the abolished certificates have been released. These reveal that discussions about the issue could lead to "unwanted questions of whether [their abolition] has contributed to registration fraud itself, which we have evidence to say it may have done".
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