The BBC last night chose to air its consumer programme Fake Britain once again during prime time. The episode previously shown back in May highlighted the ease with which criminals can steal the identity of solicitors and law firms.
It is believed that there are at least 1,400 criminal gangs trying to steal mortgage advances.
The programme covered the case of Nick Christofi, who lost £735,000 in purchase funds to fraudsters posing as Acorn Solicitors (a legitimate firm) and using the name of a retired solicitor. Mr Christofi’s claim for compensation from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has been rejected; the SRA told the BBC programme that it regulated solicitors and not criminals; therefore people with complaints ought to go to the police.
The warning issued by the SRA in 2012 stressed that firms and consumers alike could not rely on its own list of solicitors on the Find A Solicitor list “as verification that the firm is genuine” when criminals managed to register themselves on this list.
As recently as this year and within its second Risk Outlook, released in June, the SRA stated clearly that there has been an increase in firms targeted by criminals looking to gain a badge of legitimacy by using the brand and identity of law firms. This is a very real and present threat; at the time of writing the number of alerts for 2014 so far stands at 108. A severe increase on the total for the whole of 2013 of 103.
With £600m in property transactions exchanged every year, the world of conveyancing presents an obvious opportunity to fraudsters. It is therefore no surprise that 60% of the top 20 conveyancing firms have now implemented Lawyer Checker into their risk management regimen.
The Lawyer Checker database has been created to demonstrate whether or not an account has had a track record of successful use within conveyancing and therefore shows that there have been large sums of money regularly transacted. With approximately 500 firms registered across England and Wales, the database only continues to grow with use.
Fake Britain spoke with Nick Christofi’s lawyer, David Robinson, a partner at Holman Fenwick Willan. Mr Robinson advocated the use of Lawyer Checker and its product the ‘Account and Entity Screen’ as being a ‘go to’ check for both conveyancers and consumers in the fight against vendor conveyancer fraud.
Mr Robinson, known for his specialist work in the field of insurance coverage and professional liability went on to advise any would-be purchaser: “Check up on the vendors’ solicitor’s name. Use all the checks that are available. Lawyer Checker is one; don’t search the internet just for the cheapest price. It’s a big transaction; it’s worth spending a few extra pounds to get peace of mind.”
Consumers took to Twitter last night with their comments on the issue and the Lawyer Checker phone line saw a sharp increase in enquiries by consumers in the morning immediately after the programme aired.
It is time for those law firms who have not got such checks in place to stand up and be counted. Ensure your adherence to rule 10 – ensure you are protecting your client money by having a Lawyer Checker check performed on the recipient account number and prove your due diligence to both the mortgage provider and your client.