Updated 31 March 2022
Returning home from a three-week absence, Surrey resident Angela Ellis-Jones was horrified to find she was no longer her house’s registered owner – and faced a four-month fight to get the property back. Article by Nick Green.
In an attempted heist of breathtaking audacity, a woman apparently named Catherine Agnes Walder nearly succeeded in stealing an actual house. While the real owner Angela Ellis-Jones was away on a three-week visit to her mother, the fraudster contacted the Land Registry (posing as Angela) to transfer ownership of the property into her own name. She even used a solicitor.
Angela had bought the South London detached house in 2002 for £345,000. Now mortgage-free, its market value had risen since to around £850,000. The fraudster first stole her identity by intercepting her mail, by the simple process of taping up the house’s letterbox and affixing a fake letterbox to the front door. Angela reporting this act to the police, but no action was taken. Two months later, she received notification from the Land Registry that her house was no longer in her name.
The fraudster was able to pay the £80 transfer fee anonymously by using a postal order, which the Land Registry still accepts. Angela now faced a bureaucratic battle to recover legal ownership of her home; she recalls, ‘At times it felt like the law was on the criminal’s side.’ The Land Registry said it treated the crime as a ‘civil matter’ rather than fraud, and – incredibly – told Angela that the ‘current registered proprietor’ would need to give permission for Angela’s name to be put back on the register. In other words, they needed to ask the thief nicely if she minded returning Angela’s property.
The dispute dragged on for over four months, during which time Angela says she feared for her safety. ‘With a house worth this much, what lengths would they go to get me out of the way?’ At the time she had no way of knowing whether the fraud really was the work of a single individual, or of a highly organised and resourceful criminal gang.
Fortunately, the fraudster proved to have bitten off more than she could chew, since she raised no objection to the house being transferred back to Angela. However, the ease with which the initial theft was achieved highlights some worrying weaknesses in the Land Registry system, such as the ability to pay anonymously and inadequate checks on the apparent owner's identity.
Crimes of this kind are known as property title fraud, and Angela’s case is far from unique. In the year to April 2017 this type of fraud accounted for some £24.9 million worth of property misappropriated by various means. The amount has more than trebled in the space of five years – partly due to rising property prices, but also due to better technologies being available to criminals. Scams target both sellers and buyers, and will often involve false sales by those claiming to be owners. Scammers may also rent properties to intercept post and pretend to be the real owners. Buyers and sellers can be particularly vulnerable during the closing days of a sale – for instance, solicitor emails may be hacked and money transfers may be redirected to fraudsters’ accounts.
If a fraudster manages to transfer a property into their own name and refuses to transfer it back, the case must be resolved by the Lands Tribunal, which can be a long and expensive process. A spokesperson for the Land Registry said, ‘HM Land Registry is doing all it can to minimise the risk of property fraud. Since 2009, HM Land Registry has prevented 279 fraudulent applications, representing properties valued in excess of £133,431,543. If someone is defrauded of their registered property, our state indemnity means they will usually be compensated for any resulting loss.’