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Solid start for Property Alert Service, which helps prevent homes from being stolen by fraudsters.

Most of the scams that we focus on these days involve fraudsters using email, internet and phone work. But there remains some old-fashioned document forgery which has been both remarkably easy to carry out and amazingly lucrative. It's stealing someone's house.

And while anyone can be a victim, the main targets are elderly residents and those who have rented out their home, often when they go to live abroad. Other potential losers include those in long term hospital care, owners of empty properties, and couples in the throes of a complex and acrimonious divorce.

Now, however, there is a fightback against property fraud which has shown remarkable results over its first six months. The Property Alert service helps detect unusual activity on homes which might well be fraudulent. Even before this service was set up, police and Land Registry officials had detected some £66 million in dishonest transactions. Since then, they have stopped millions more, and signed up some 12,000 individual property owners to the free service.

Losses can be enormous; given the present price of homes, victims can lose six figure sums. Even though there can be some compensation on registered properties – any sold or mortgaged since 1998 – no one wants to go through this process, especially if they are vulnerable.

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How homes are stolen

The simplest method is where someone uses false documents to raise money on a property via a mortgage.

Years ago I wrote about a Brighton homeowner who had moved on a long term basis to the Far East as a teacher. He had rented his UK property out via an agency. A prospective tenant turned up, paid six months' rent in advance, and took the keys.

Once in the house, he easily accumulated identity documents such as utility bills and a voting register presence. Armed with these, he found a 'friendly' mortgage broker who arranged an £80,000 remortgage – easy as the original borrowings had been paid off. The thief took the £80,000, and disappeared. When the real owner returned, he found demands for mortgage repayments. This was eventually settled because the broker had been negligent.

Besides mortgage fraud, scam merchants sometimes simply try to sell the property to a cash buyer – there are plenty around prepared to pay for what appears to be a bargain.

So far more than 12,000 have signed up to the Land Registry's Property Alert service, which provides an early warning of suspicious activity on someone's property. But that leaves millions who are both unaware of the risks and unaware of the service.

How to join Property Alert

To join Property Alert, you need to set up a free online account with Land Registry. You can monitor up to ten properties – important when absent owners such as buy-to-let landlords are a prime target .

The Registry will send an email when it receives an application to change the register as well as for official searches. It's then up to the property owner to judge if the activity is suspicious – for instance when a bank lodges a search on your property, but you haven't applied for a mortgage. This can trigger investigations much earlier.

Owners can also make a request to have a restriction entered on their property. This is designed to help prevent forgery by requiring a solicitor or conveyancer to certify they are satisfied that the person selling or mortgaging the property is the true owner. Amazingly, this is still not a requirement.

In April this year, Marshall Joseph and Alick Kapikanya, part of a gang which netted £3.5 million and would have grabbed a further £3.3 million had they not been stopped, were jailed for four-and-a-half years and six years respectively at Manchester Crown Court. They had bought big homes and expensive cars with the proceeds and also gambled heavily at casinos.

The pair recruited a team of fraudsters including a bent conveyancer to get title deeds. Then they used fake passports, driving licences and utility bills to pose as the real owners.

The gang would go to solicitors' offices using the fake documents to sign over the properties to Joseph so he could take out loans with financial institutions, securing the mortgages against the 'stolen' homes.

The true owners of the ten properties involved knew nothing about the scam loans. The police uncovered the fraud after Joseph defaulted on repayments and it emerged he was involved in a string of other rackets.

Detective Constable Craig Moylon, of Greater Manchester Police Major Fraud Unit, said after the trail: "This was a meticulously planned series of frauds which involved different people playing different parts all for a common purpose with no regard for the devastation they were to have on many innocent parties who suffered the traumatic experience of fearing they had lost their homes or were potentially liable for loans of hundreds of thousands of pounds were forced to instruct solicitors to have their homes put back in their name and the secured loans removed from their titles."

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