Land Registry worker helped gang to steal empty properties

A worker at the Land Registry, a solicitor, a bank manager and drug traffickers formed a property fraud gang that made millions by stealing other people’s homes.

Targeting the elderly and vulnerable – typically, people who had moved into care homes, or were left to deal with probate estates – the gang swooped on empty houses.

They erected estate-agency style signs outside, with the name and number of a bogus  ‘security firm’.

If this led to no inquiries, the gang then changed the name on the title deeds and sold the property to unsuspecting purchasers.

One victim of the con, a retired widow, had been granted probate of her late brother’s estate, including his house. When she went to see it, she was greeted with abuse by the new owner. Her brother’s name on the deeds had been replaced by someone else’s and the locks changed.

Freda Gallacher said: “The whole experience has left me in near financial ruin and certainly taken a toll on my health. It is clear to me that I have been a victim of failings within the Land Registry.”

Another person had moved out of her home following a traumatic burglary, leaving her possessions behind and planning to return to it one day. Police subsequently told her she no longer owned her home.

At least nine properties together worth £3.8m were known to have been targeted across south London, but detectives believe that many more homes changed hands due to the gang’s work.

Land Registry worker Surjeet Chana, 64, was instrumental to the plot, using her position of trust to supply title deeds and ownership signatures.

Detectives found £38,000 in cash in the loft of Chana’s £600,000 home.

Mark Gadsden, prosecuting, told a sentencing hearing at Southwark Crown Court: “This case concerns sophisticated property fraud and money laundering.

“The gang targeted unoccupied properties, pretended to be the lawful owners and then sold them on to unsuspecting third parties for large profits. Unsurprisingly, they left chaos in their wake. The crime was thoroughly amoral – criminality motivated solely by greed.

“Integral to the success of the fraud were a number of corrupt individuals and insiders.”

Chana, who worked in the Land Registry’s customer information centre in Croydon, south London, was suspended from her £21,709 job as a registration officer following her arrest in 2010 and later dismissed after 33 years of service.

Another key conspirator was Charles Spiropoulos, 48, a conveyancing solicitor who worked for Andrews and Co solicitors in Peckham, London.

“He did the conveyancing for some of the properties, in the full knowledge that they were fraudulent sales,” Mr Gadsden said.

He said a business manager at Barclays in Purley, who cannot be named for legal reasons, helped the conspirators to launder the proceeds.

Judge Michael Grieve QC adjourned the hearing until tomorrow, when Chana will be sentenced along with Spiropoulos and a third man for conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation.

A Land Registry spokesman said that victims would be offered compensation.

In the four years to the end of 2010, the Land Registry paid out £26m in compensation to victims of property title fraud. Even the Candy brothers have been swindled.

For landlords whose properties may fall void, this latest case underlines the importance of putting in place extra security measures on Land Registry documents. Speak to a solicitor to arrange these extra checks, which the Land Registry itself strongly recommends.