Fraudsters going to “considerable lengths” to impersonate conveyancers

Fraud: identity theft is a major risk

The many ways in which fraudsters try to trick solicitors, property owners, buyers, sellers, borrowers and lenders have been laid out in new guidance issued jointly by HM Land Registry (HMLR) and the Law Society.

The practice note warns the fraudsters can go to “considerable lengths” to impersonate conveyancers to mislead a buyer into sending purchase monies to them.

These can include fake letterheads, similar but false email addresses, creating fake websites and registering a fake sub-office with the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Given that, the guidance note urged parties to remain alert even if they have confirmation that a conveyancer appears on their regulator’s official lists.

Possible signs of fraud include telephone calls being diverted to a call-back service, a firm apparently based in serviced offices, the “sudden appearance in your locality of a firm with no obvious connection to the area, probably not interacting with other local firms at all”, a firm appearing to open a branch office a considerable distance from its principal office for no obvious reason and A firm based in one part of the country supposedly having a bank account in another part of the country.

Law Society president Joe Egan said: “While successful instances of fraud against solicitors are rare, the whole profession must maintain constant vigilance against those who try to defraud them.”

Graham Farrant, HMLR chief executive and Chief Land Registrar, added: “Our priority is to ensure the integrity of the Land Register by preventing fraudulent registrations.”

Last month, the Law Society failed in its bid to strike out a negligence claim by a law firm that was the victim of a fraud after the details of another firm it had checked on the society’s online ‘Find a Solicitor’ facility turned out to be false.

Meanwhile, HMLR is to work with the Bold Legal Group – the body that represents several hundred conveyancing firms – to raise awareness of the Land Registry’s Property Alert service.

This is aimed at anyone who feels a registered property could be at risk from fraud.

Bold is asking its members to load a web banner to their websites, and display and distribute dual-branded Property Alert posters and leaflets from their offices.

Meanwhile, top London law firm Pennington Manches has warned solicitors to beware of HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) stamp duty land tax calculator, which it said can lead to parties paying the wrong amounts of tax in variety of circumstances.

For example, the calculator does not cater for the special rate of SDLT for purchases by companies of residential properties costing more than £500,000, or for how SDLT works when you buy more than one property and the purchases are linked with each other. In both cases, it can lead to figures that are too low.

But the firm said the calculator “is equally adept at over-stating the SDLT liability” by not applying the two reliefs which can reduce the SDLT liability where a number of dwellings are bought together.

Neither can the SDLT calculator deal with ‘overlap relief’ – a relief which reduces the SDLT payable on the grant of a new lease where there has been a surrender of an existing lease.

Finally, the Bold Legal Group has appointed former Legal Ombudsman Darren Cox as an associate director.

Mr Cox, a solicitor, has been an ombudsman since 2010 and also headed the service’s property and conveyancing team.

He said he would help enhancing the group’s offering to members, for example by introducing training webinars and a bespoke complaints advice handling service.

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