Maria Lauretta, from Shoeburyness in Essex, attempted to take control of Michael Rees' house in Chadwell Heath, north-east London, after his death. According to a report in the Daily Mail, Rees died with no living heir and no will, and Lauretta decided to take advantage, by changing the locks and preparing for tenants to move in.
It's a new type of property scam. So how can you avoid becoming a victim?
Rees died last year, leaving his £275,000 property empty. With no surviving heirs, it stood empty for 13 months. It was easy prey to a breed of scammers who pose as 'heir hunters' and take advantage of delays in the official process in order to make money from property that does not belong to them.
The rulesThe rules state that if you die without heirs and without having made a will, then your estate passes into the hands of the authorities - and becomes known as bona vacantia. The process depends where you live, but in most of England and Wales, this is dealt with by the Treasury Solicitor.
The Treasury Solicitor will advertise details of the estates in its hands - giving the full name, date of birth, county, and any other details of the person who has passed away. If anyone responds and lays claim to the estate, they have to prove they are blood relatives, with birth, marriage or death certificates and proof of identity. They will also be asked to give anecdotal proof.
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The risksThe trouble is that by advertising the estate as vacant, it alerts would-be scammers. They can track down the property, and take advantage. They change the locks, spring-clean the property, and then advertise for tenants, so they can start raking in the monthly rents while the official process is in the early stages.
This is an outrage for all concerned. Any potential legitimate heirs could suddenly find themselves with squatters. Then there's the shock for those people who think they are legally renting a property, who suddenly find themselves turfed out as the Treasury takes the property back. They may be left with no access to the deposit they paid, and nowhere to go. Finally, there is the Treasury which could face a legal minefield in getting rid of determined tenants - for which we will all pay.
In this particular instance, concerned neighbours stepped in before any real damage could be done. According to the Daily Mail, Lauretta changed the locks, and put a notice in the window telling people to keep out. She told neighbours she was 'legal', and that she had other bona vacantia properties rented out. However, unconvinced, they contacted their local MP and the Treasury Solicitor's department.
The Treasury Solicitor changed the locks again to keep Lauretta out, and the MP contacted police who decided that no criminal offence was apparent.
Protect yourselfHowever, there is the risk that others may not be so lucky in future. The only way to protect your property from this sort of fate is to make a will. Even if you have no heirs this will then ensure that the property passes into the hands of the individual or charity you wish. If you have heirs, then it is even more essential to make a will, because if you don't your estate will be divided according to specific rules set by the government, and you will have no say as to which family members inherit.
If you are renting a property, it is one of the risks involved if you rent direct from a landlord. According to Shelter, in three years around 1 million people are victims of rental scams, so you need to take precautions.
1. The one that would provide protection in this case is to check who owns the property by searching the Land Registry website and paying a small fee.
2. You should also get the landlord's name and a UK contact address, so you can confirm they are who they say they are.
3. There are other scams worth taking precautions to avoid too. Never transfer any money as proof you are serious about renting - this is a scam, and the money will simply be taken from you with no rental property forthcoming.
4. Never agree to pay more rent each month instead of a deposit on a vague understanding that you'll get the extra back. You'll never see that money.
5. Get written confirmation in advance of everything you are expected to pay for during the tenancy. This will avoid them charging for things like inspections out of the blue.
6. It's vital that before you hand over any money, you receive proof that they are a member of a government-approved deposit protection scheme, so you can be sure to get your deposit back.
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