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The price of progress

The price of progress


Russell Conway considers how the house-buying process has changed – not always for the better

When I was an extremely green articled clerk (that’s what they were called in those days), I regularly attended completion meetings.

I would be lectured at some length by my principal about what I should be giving and, importantly, what I should be collecting. In the case of my firm acting for the seller, the most important thing to collect would be a banker’s draft, something we rarely see these days. I had a bit of a fear of banker’s drafts. I was always wondering if it was a draft or if it could perhaps be a cheque in disguise.

I would hand over a packet of deeds and perhaps collect a couple of undertakings. In due course the keys would be released, and if the completion meeting took place at the property being sold or acquired, I would collect those as well.

Of course, there was a great deal of unnecessary work going on. Who needs an attended completion these days? Why would we use a banker’s draft when we can send money electronically into another account?

But recently things have begun to go wrong. Fraudsters have realized that they can make more money out of conveyancing fraud than robbing banks. Indeed, I fondly remember acting for a bank robber over 30 years ago. His average take (and I seem to recall he did some 18 banks and building societies) was less than £5,000. A conveyancing fraud can net a great deal more than that and the risks are probably a good deal less.

Several recent ‘imposter’ cases have defrauded innocent victims out of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and a case which made all the papers recently involved a sum of £1m.

Imposter cases are just that: somebody turning up in your office saying they own a property which they don’t. Quite often they are tenants or have researched an empty property. Using sometimes genuine but often forged ID, they go on to completion and then ask for the proceeds to be sent abroad, where it is usually impossible to trace. Many of these fraudsters can be detected by electronic identification techniques – but sadly these are neither mandatory nor well used in the legal profession.

In the second type of fraud, which is unpleasantly insidious and could easily catch out a large number of firms, the solicitor receives an innocent-looking email from the client on the day of completion saying that they want the proceeds of sale sent to another account. In fact, the solicitor’s hard drive or server will have been hacked by the villains, who if undetected will make off with the money.

The moral of this tale is to invest what it takes to make your server secure. Money invested in secure software is never wasted.

The government is now talking about secure email signatures and swifter procedures at the Land Registry, all of which will be welcomed by the public.

But progress really does come at a price.

Attended completions are probably a thing of the past, but unless we nail the fraudsters and stop their illegal interventions in the conveyancing process, who knows what the future will hold?

Russell Conway is senior partner at Oliver Fisher