Safe as houses is a phrase that’s widely known. It suggests nothing could be safer than owning a house.
But is a house really as safe as houses? Could your house actually be stolen? (And what do you need to do to try and stop it happening?)
Stories of houses being effectively stolen from under their owners’ noses, and reports of attempted house thefts, seem to have increased in recent years.
In one well publicised case a property owner in Luton came home to find someone else had bought his house without his knowledge and was now living in it.
Recent rising house prices have made housejacking more attractive to criminals because there is much more to be gained from it.
So what exactly is house theft?
Housejacking isn’t literally picking up a house and carrying it away of course.
Housejacking usually involves a criminal posing as the owner, perhaps by falsifying or stealing their identity. Then using the owner’s identity to sell the house on to an unsuspecting buyer, or perhaps an accomplice, which is also known as title fraud. When the genuine owner finds out the criminal may have disappeared along with the proceeds.
Housejacking can happen to any property owner. However the risk is higher for those who own property they don’t live in, such as investors and landlords. It’s easier for a tenant to commit this kind of fraud since they have physical possession of the property. (Although hijackers don’t necessarily need to be tenants.)
Property that is for sale or empty can also be more at risk.
Rental fraud and mortgage fraud
Tenants who commit this type of fraud might use it as an opportunity to commit rental fraud too. They might rent your property then offer it for let to an innocent party, perhaps disappearing with their deposit or rent before the fraud is discovered.
Mortgage fraud, where a mortgage is secured on your property without your knowledge, is a variation on this type of fraud.
How can housejacking happen?
When solicitors and conveyancers take on a conveyancing transaction they are legally required to confirm the identity of their clients. But these requirements are presently not that onerous. If a fraudster provides legitimate identity documents in the appropriate name, perhaps having legally changed their name to obtain them, then they could be accepted as a legitimate seller.
What happens if your house is stolen?
If your house is hijacked all is not lost fortunately. The solicitors and conveyancers involved might spot what is going on before the sale goes through. There are provisions in place to rectify the situation. HM Land Registry has a compensation scheme and solicitors and conveyancers also have professional insurance in place which may be applicable.
So all being well you will not lose your house or your money. Putting things right is likely to involve a lot of stress and a lot of worry of course.
What can you do to avoid becoming a victim of housejacking?
There are a few precautions you can consider taking to reduce the risk of having your property stolen in this way.
* Don’t use the address of any property you do not live in yourself, such as a buy to let, as your address.
* Take extra care when letting property. Check references and IDs carefully. Check that a new tenant actually moves in and lives there as their own home. (If they don’t they could possibly be renting your property for fraudulent purposes.) Do regular inspections.
* Consider registering your property with HM Land Registry’s free Property Alert Service . HM Land Registry will then notify you if someone tries to register the sale of your property, or makes pre-sale enquiries, ie. searches.
* Consider placing a restriction on your property’s title with HM Land Registry. This means that solicitors and conveyancers who are asked to deal with the sale of your property will have to make extra checks to confirm the identity of the seller.
In reality the chances of having a property you own housejacked are probably quite small. Taking some simple and straightforward precautions can reduce even this small risk considerably.