Property sales hit by spike in payment fraud scams

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The Law Society of England and Wales is warning about payment diversion fraud ‑ where criminals are targeting property purchases to trick people into transferring to them their house deposit and other money used to buy a home. It has joined forces with the National Economic Crime Centre (NECC), which is housed within the National Crime Agency, and Action Fraud to issue flyers warning of the risk.

The phasing out of a stamp duty holiday has helped to produce a surge in house sales in recent months, with property experts reporting working long hours to help buyers to beat the deadline.

The pandemic has also prompted many people to move home as part of making lifestyle changes.

The Law Society said the frauds “almost always” involve criminals pretending to be the victim’s lawyer to con them into diverting their payment to an account they control.

Law Society president Stephanie Boyce said: “We are urging our members to share these flyers with their clients to help protect them from these highly sophisticated schemes.

“These frauds can involve huge sums and have a devastating impact on the home-buyer and their personal finances. Solicitors and their clients can all play a part in making such crimes more difficult for the perpetrators.”

One house-buyer was scammed into handing over £640,000, the Law Society said. 

Emails between the buyer and their solicitor had been intercepted by criminals, who collected all the information.

They then used a “spoofed” email account to request payment. The details came on headed solicitor’s paper via the email, and the amount requested was correct.

The victim was later advised by the genuine solicitor that the payments had not been requested. Most of the money was never recovered, all but wiping out the victim’s equity and leading to the collapse of their purchase, the Law Society said.

Buyers should be extremely vigilant if there appears to be any change of payment details, and always double-check by calling their lawyer before they transfer their money, it advised.

Jon Shilland, fraud threat lead at the NECC, said: “Payment diversion fraud is increasing as criminals are targeting home-buyers due to the scale of the transactions.

“Whenever a client is making a payment to their solicitor for a house purchase, they should be highly suspicious of any change in account details or new instructions. 

“Remind them to always check with a trusted known contact, and if they have any doubt not to transfer the money.”

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