It’s funny how life goes sometimes. An inheritance from Auntie Edna enables you to pay off your mortgage and your employer offers you the chance of a two-year posting in Sydney. You find a tenant for your house. You rent it out for a year just in case things don’t work out. But the job is good, the lifestyle’s great and your textbook tenant pays the rent on time every month without prompting. You have no hesitation in renewing the tenancy for a second year.

But then the rent stops a few months before you return home. The managing agents cannot explain why. You are resigned to the loss of a few months’ rent but look forward to moving back into your home. You arrive in the taxi from the airport and the lights are on. Your key doesn’t work and, when you ring the doorbell, the door is answered by a woman carrying a small child.

You ask what this person is doing in your house. To which the answer is “It is our house, we bought it four weeks ago”.

How did this happen?

Your textbook tenant is part of an organised criminal gang who knew you had a property free of mortgage and rented it to impersonate you. They tricked the managing agents and the buyer and have disappeared with the cash. Far fetched? No, unfortunately this does happen.

As the Land Registry is publically available online, not only can anyone find out the name of the homeowner and whether or not there is a mortgage but digital copies of the title deeds to 28 million properties in England and Wales can also be obtained. Organised criminals can take advantage of a home owner’s ignorance of the system and you are vulnerable – particularly if you do not have a mortgage and your property is being advertised to let.

What can you do?

You or your solicitor should immediately contact The Land Registry and notify them as you will want to have the property back. But this isn't a straightforward process as there are two innocent parties and only one property. Depending on the actual circumstances, one of you might end up with financial compensation instead.

Prevention is better than cure

If you are not going to live in a mortgage-free property, here are three things you should do to reduce the risks of property fraud:

  1. Make sure your contact details at the Land Registry are kept up to date and include one which is not based at the property – for example, an email address or work address.
  2. Sign up to the Land Registry’s free property alert service. Subject to them being satisfied you are the owner, you can give them your email address and, if there is any activity against your title, you will receive a warning.
  3. Register a protective wording against the title to the property which means that it cannot be sold unless and until various checks have been carried out.

You may not be lucky enough to have paid off your mortgage or have a job abroad but, if you own a rental property or you look after elderly relatives’ properties following their move into residential care, the same applies.