Conveyancing Fraud – what is it and how to avoid becoming a victim

Conveyancing fraud has been around for some time now. Yet, as the years have passed, cybercriminals have become more sophisticated in their approach, in particular when it comes to conveyancing.

With a typical property transaction dealing with hundreds of thousands of pounds and buyers often pushed to their very limits dealing with the stress of moving home, being aware of suspected fraudulent activity is unlikely to be at the forefront of many home-buyers minds.

In this article, we’re looking to share our top tips on scams to watch out for and some simple steps you can take to ensure you can protect yourself from falling victim to conveyancing fraud.

What does a conveyancing scam look like?

Conveyancing fraud often takes place when information is obtained about the sale or purchase of a property.

Cybercriminals may well intercept emails exchanged between a solicitor and their client or attempt to steal a person’s identity in order to divert funds to them rather than the legitimate party.

Frequently, a fraudster will implement their scam near the point of completion on a property.

Most commonly, they attempt to impersonate the conveyancer, requesting the deposit, completion monies or other fees, and provide their own bank account details, rather than the conveyancer’s client account.

With the house buying process often being a high-pressured environment, it’s easy to miss even the subtlest of changes in an email exchange from whom you think is your conveyancer. By the time you’ve realised what’s happened the fraudster has often completed their criminal activity, and you are sadly left out of pocket.

How has COVID-19 impacted conveyancing scams?

When the UK went its first lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, most businesses had to adapt to a new way of working to allow staff to work from home. With the conveyancing industry being no exception, they are now, more so than ever, communicating with buyers over email rather than in person or over the telephone.

While this new way of working has propelled businesses many years ahead in terms of hybrid working it has also highlighted new ways in which fraudsters can take advantage of the current climate.

Since the UK’s housing market re-opened in May 2020, it has gone from strength to strength. The introduction of the Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) holiday further fuelled the fire with buyers keen to re-evaluate their current living situation with the ‘race for space’ now at an all-time high.

The knock-on effect of this is that the process of buying a property has become more frantic than ever, with buyers eager to take advantage of the SDLT holiday and its perceived cost savings when buying a property.

All the while cybercriminals have discovered the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the fast-paced market situation, exploiting buyers who are too focused on getting their property transaction completed to spot the signs of potential fraud.

What are the warning signs for conveyancing fraud?

By the time you’ve realised that you’ve been a victim of conveyancing fraud, it can often be too late and result in a lengthy process to attempt recovery of any missing funds.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are unsuccessful in getting back their money, and so it’s pertinent to make yourself aware of the types of tricks a fraudster may use to better protect yourself in the first place.

First and foremost, make sure you get into the habit of reading emails closely and beware of any changes such as how your conveyancer addresses you, or if the email contains a lot of spelling / grammatical errors. These can be tell-tale signs that someone else is impersonating your conveyancer. Make sure to call your conveyancer to confirm whether this is the case – they will thank you for checking.

Other things to watch out for include:

• Always double-check the email addresses you or your conveyancer are using – fraudsters often make small changes to fool you so watch out for slight changes in the spelling of a name for example, or an email presented with an address that differs (even slightly) from the firm or company your conveyancer works for.
• If you are asked to transfer money, and the sort code & account number are different to any you’ve previously used, this can be one of the most obvious changes and one you should always call your conveyancer to confirm if indeed they are genuine. A conveyancer or other representative from your conveyancer’s firm will typically use a single client account for transactions, and as such you should feel comfortable double checking the details before transferring any funds if you are unsure.
• If this is your first transaction with your conveyancer, consider transferring as little as £1 and ask for confirmation monies have been received before transferring the remaining balance.
• If you’ve been asked to pay for a conveyancing cost that is additional to what you expected or that hasn’t previously been quoted for – your conveyancer should always make you aware of any additional costs incurred, and be transparent when it comes to ensuring there are no surprises to be had.
• Cybercriminals will often make their requests with a sense of urgency. This is to trick you into acting quickly without suspecting anything. Always be prepared to take time to double check, a quick call to your conveyancer’s main office number to confirm may well be a worthwhile 2 minute delay if it saves you thousands in fraudulently stolen money.

Helpful tips to avoid becoming a victim of cyber-crime when buying a property

• If something seems suspicious, trust your instincts and look into it further. Don’t transfer money or send personal information before investigating it.
• Don’t give in to being pressured to send money quickly. This is one of the most common tactics used to catch people out.
• If you’re asked to send monies or personal information and you are unsure of the legitimacy of the request, call your conveyancer to check using the number from their website, not what’s referenced in an email. This is to ensure the number is correct and you don’t inadvertently speak with the fraudsters to authenticate their legitimacy.

Finally, when selecting a conveyancer to manage your property move, make sure you select a firm that is a member of the Council for Licenced Conveyancers (CLC), such as us here at Enact. All members of the CLC will display a secure badge to provide consumers with confidence that the conveyancer they have found is for a firm that is regulated by the CLC.

For further information on the different types of scams to watch out for, take a look at our previous article. Remember, if you think you’ve been a victim of cybercrime report it as soon as possible to action fraud and your bank.

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