Those who have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds in so-called “home hijacking” scams – where criminals pose as the owner of a building to sell it – have been given fresh hope after a High Court ruling.

Development company Dreamvar successfully appealed to the High Court relating to a £1.1m fraud. Yesterday’s decision places liability on the seller’s solicitors for failing to carry out adequate identity checks.

According to Land Registry figures released last year, property hijackings are on the rise. The value of successful frauds rocketed from £7.2m in 2013 to £24.9m this time last year.

Suzanne Raftery, of Requite Solutions, a scam recovery business, said the frequency of cases was increasing, particularly in London where is it not uncommon for properties to be marketed for £1m or more.

She explained that criminals will typically rent a vacant property and begin to intercept the landlord’s post before posing as the true owner and selling the house to a cash buyer. Often the Land Registry will be the first to recognise the crime, by which time it is usually too late.

Ms Raftery said: “It’s very easy to pretend to be the seller of a property. The checks are pretty much non-existent, solicitors will check a passport and verify it’s a picture of you but they often won’t verify that it’s a real passport. A good fake will get you through.

“The estate agents will then just go ‘that’s fine’ and the sale can go ahead. If you’re actually in a property it is much easier to intercept mail and you will have utility bills with your name on. A lot of people are actually renting property with the intention of committing this crime.”

In the Dreamvar case, the company purchased a London property from a seemingly legitimate seller for £1.1m. It was only after the firm had already begun refurbishment work that the scam came to light.

Jerome O’Sullivan, a partner at Healys, the law firm that acted for Dreamvar, said the court had confirmed that the vendor’s solicitor was best-placed to verify the seller’s identity, and that solicitors who were negligent in this duty would have liability to the victim.

He told Telegraph Money that the conveyancers had not met the fraudsters posing as the owners and had accepted a week-old driving licence and a TV licence form as proof of identification.

The Land Registry has reportedly prevented hundreds of these cases in the past decade with a total value of more than £100m.

Ms Raftery, who is a former Metropolitan Police detective, said that cases in London were frequent given the value of homes in the capital. She said she had investigated a case worth £10m relating to the fake sale of a property in Kensington.

“In London even flats are worth a lot so it doesn’t look out of the ordinary when someone says they own a £1m property. So it becomes a target for these criminals,” she said.

Telegraph Money has reported extensively on conveyancing scams, also known as “Friday afternoon fraud” because of the day that many property purchases go through.

Often fraudsters will gain access to a buyer’s email account or that of the solicitor, and insert themselves into the conversation shortly before money is due to be transferred “informing” the buyer of a change of bank account.

After transferring the money, which could be for a deposit or, in some cases, the total value of the property, the criminals will disappear – leaving the victim down tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In one case reported by this newspaper in March, a 50-year-old restaurateur lost £600,000 to this sort of scam.

How to protect yourself

If you are the owner of a property then an easy and free way to secure it is to register for the Land Registry’s alert service. This will notify you whenever someone makes a search for your property.

Ms Raftery said anyone looking to rent out a property should take this step.

In almost all cases the owner will regain control of their property, but this involves complex legal wrangling and could take a long time. It could also derail a sale if you had planned to sell in the near future.

A lot of people are actually renting property with the intention of committing this crime

If you are the buyer, there are some avenues you can take to attempt to recover your money, or prevent this from happening to you. Ms Raftery said you should ask your solicitor to check that the vendor’s representatives had made the required checks.

If you have already been the victim of a scam you could take hope from the Dreamvar case. Mr O’Sullivan said the case put liability on to the vendor’s solicitor if they had not carried out the required identity checks.

Another avenue could be to target the bank that allowed the criminal to open an account. Telegraph Money has campaigned for so-called “recipient banks” to take more responsibility when they have allowed a fraudster to open an account – usually with false or forged documents.

Some banks have paid refunds and compensation to victims in these circumstances, but there is currently no requirement for them to do so and responses are inconsistent.

Ms Raftery said: “If the bank hadn’t allowed the proceeds to be laundered then this fraud just couldn’t take place.”

Have you fallen victim to a case of ‘home hijacking’ as an owner or a buyer? Email sam.meadows@telegraph.co.uk

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