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Beware of Title Deed Fraudsters
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Beware of Title Deed Fraudsters

In an early article, we covered the fact that there are several types of house ownership and probably the most coveted form of ownership is where you get a title deed. People tend to prefer to buy and own properties without deeds because they are the easiest and best way to prove you own the property in question after making a purchase. You can also easily check there are no encumbrances (read problems) associated with the property which would make it unwise to buy it.

It’s relatively easy for fraudsters to forge other forms of ownership such as cessation and do things like sell to multiple buyers or sell properties they don’t actually own or are authorised to sell. The thing though is that ownership deeds are not as foolproof as people think they are.

There is a new breed of fraudsters who are now setting up shop and exploiting loopholes in the property deed system. To understand how they are doing this we need to examine how title deeds work. Title deeds are the most reliable proof that you own a piece of property and usually come in the form of two “proofs.” One is a piece of paper that you can keep in your records and show to whoever you wish to prove the ownership to. The other part is an entry at the deeds office. Most people don’t realise this but the paper you have in your records is worthless without that corresponding entry at the deeds office.

All the fraudster needs to do is trick the title deeds office to transfer a piece of property from your name into theirs/or someone else’s name and then proceed to sell it. In theory, this should not be possible or easy. In reality, though it is not as hard as it sounds. Social media is already awash with stories of people who woke up to find that they no longer owned their properties. These fraudsters do their homework, they typically target certain properties which are unlikely to draw attention. These include:

  • Properties that are owned by people who are in the diaspora are especially vulnerable. Zimbabwe’s title deed searches are done physically at the deeds offices in Bulawayo and Harare. If you are in the Diaspora, chances are you bought your property through an agent and in most cases, you cannot easily carry out a regular search to prove you own the property. In fact, if you buy the property through an unreliable or untrustworthy agent they may just turn around and sell the property to another person from right under you.

  • Relatively new properties, especially vacant/undeveloped lots - these tend to change hands frequently and their sale and purchase do not attract as much scrutiny as a house in an established neighbourhood like Greendale for example.

  • You rent out your property for a long time especially if you do it through a shady agency. Once they gain enough information about the property they may wrest it from you through fraud.

  • Your property does not have an encumbrance against it. Examples of encumbrances include things like mortgages or similar claims. Encumbrances generally attract more attention and paperwork when someone attempts to make a sale. Generally, banks are very good at protecting their interest and are contacted by the deeds office whenever a house they helped finance goes on the market. Fraudsters know this and tend to stay clear of such properties.

  • Someone steals your identity. This is a key ingredient in such forms of fraud. The fraudsters, in addition to gaining confidential information about you, need to get ahold of your identity. Sadly this is easier than it should be with most Zimbabweans carelessly leaving photocopies and their identities around. You need to appreciate the fact that your identity documents are sacrosanct. Often when someone presents an ID and all the right information it is often not easy to prove they are not who they claim to be. I mean have you seen the photos they put on your ID, they hardly look like you in most cases.

How the fraud is carried out

Again getting ahold of your ID somehow is an important and essential step. The fraudster then uses the checklist above to scour for a vulnerable property that you own. Once they do this they then proceed to get your property deed details from the deeds office. Again, not very hard - the process might take the form of them finding someone who looks remotely like you on the ID and walking into the deeds office to get these.

With the deed details and a copy of the title deed in hand, all they need to do is open a bank account in the property owner’s name. Again it’s not as hard as you think despite the onerous KYC systems banks have set in place a determined fraudster can easily jump the hoops if they have the ID document. Once the account is set up all they need to do is list the property and wait to make a sale. Once the sale goes through they transfer the property into the buyer’s name.

Obviously, if this is a property you are living in you can swiftly become aware as the new buyer will probably want to take possession of their new acquisition as soon as possible but if the property is an undeveloped lot, for example, the buyer could just also be buying for speculative purposes and just hold on to their deed. It might take years before either of you is aware that this has happened. The same is true if you are a diaspora buyer who has bought such a property it might take you a while to realise the fraud.

Surely this is all theoretical scaremongering!

You are probably thinking “surely something as big as a house and its adjoining sprawling landscaping cannot be stolen so easily! Even if it happens, I will simply call the police who will easily catch the fraudster and give me my title deeds back.”
The thing is it will not be so easy to prove you didn’t sell the house. While it’s generally easy to get stolen movable assets like cars back when you lose your house it’s very possible that you will not be able to get it back.

Just to emphasise how hard it is there is a British case of a man who lost his house in a similar fashion. Because the record at the deeds office was in the name of the new buyer (who was also an innocent and unwitting participant in this “crime”) the new buyer was actually able to evict the original owner and gain ownership of the property. This is because they could actually prove ownership. You can expect something similar to happen to you if you were to lose your property this way. If it can happen in the UK with all those sophisticated people you can bet it can happen to your Zimbabwean property. 

How to protect yourself

You can take these steps to protect yourself:

  • Make sure you only use reputable agents when making a sale or purchase. Propertybook only lists vetted properties via reputable agents.

  • Protect yourself from identity theft by guarding your identity documents like the prized possessions they are.

  • If you have a vulnerable property or properties, regularly check to make sure that you actually own them or that no one is attempting to sell them without your permission.

  • Also regularly check listing sites to make sure your property is not on there. One good way is to think up keywords that describe your property, it’s address and so on and put a Google Alert that will let you know if your house/property address somehow makes it onto the internet.

  • Set up encumbrances against your deeds. I am talking about something useful. You can do something as useful as buy a home solar system and have it against your property. This will act as a tripwire if someone tries to sell your property as creditors with claims will be informed when this happens.

  • This will not stop a determined fraudster but you can put your property under the ownership of a company instead of you as an individual. Company purchases and sales attract significantly more scrutiny than individual purchases and sales. For example, opening a company account with a bank is a laborious process. Believe me, I have done this a couple of times.

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