Emergency SRA inspections of firms where property fraud is suspected are estimated to have saved lenders £15-20m in the past nine months, the authority has announced.
The inspections were part of an SRA campaign to target solicitors involved in property fraud, and to give guidance to solicitors who might become involved unwittingly.
There has been concern about rising levels of property fraud from a number of sources, with the SRA’s own figures showing an increase in reports of suspected property fraud from 85 in 2005 to 356 in 2008, and over 400 in 2009.
In the 12 months to the end of December 2009, the SRA completed 106 investigations into firms where there was suspected misconduct in relation to mortgages or property. Of these, 22 firms have been closed down by the SRA, 24 cases have been referred to the police for investigation, and 30 cases have been referred by the SRA to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. There are other investigations continuing.
The SRA has issued advice and warnings to all solicitors’ firms, alerting them to the warning signs of suspicious transactions, and reminding them of their obligations to ensure they do not become involved and to report any suspicions.
Head of the SRA’s fraud and confidential intelligence bureau, Steve Wilmott, said: ‘Last year the SRA stepped up its work to prevent, deter and tackle mortgage fraud. We’ve recruited two dedicated fraud officers, increasing our fraud unit to 18. Mortgage fraud is a serious issue for home-owners and lenders. We are working closely with major lenders and the police to share intelligence and take prompt action.’
Detective Superintendent Robert Wishart, of the City of London Police, national lead force for fraud investigation, said: ‘We are committed to working closely with the SRA during 2010, and beyond, to target corrupt solicitors who, we believe, are a significant enabler of property fraud. Working in collaboration will help us to better understand the threats and give us the opportunity to take preventative and enforcement action to protect the financial community.’