19:14 PM, 30th January 2011, About 13 years ago
Empty buy to let properties are increasingly targets for hit-and-run fraudsters cheating firms and benefit agencies.
Crooks often set up false accounts for empty homes with mail order firms and try to claim benefits in the names of former tenants.
In some cases, squatters even move in for a few days , often trashing the home and taking fixtures and fittings when they leave.
The problem is so bad in some areas that councils and housing associations have set up anti-fraud teams to protect vacant homes.
Recently, a fraud team in Wigan found a family squatting in a home awaiting new tenants – and then discovered the family already had a house that was let to tenants while they lived in the squat.
In another case, in Dagenham, Essex, a pensioner who left his home to visit friends for a couple of days returned to find a family of squatters had moved in.
Landlords set up house watch schemes with neighbours
Both cases ended in court and left the property owners with huge legal and repair bills.
Letting agents and landlords should regularly check homes between lets to make sure the properties are secure.
Any homes left vacant during cold weather need visits to make sure pipes have not frozen and burst.
Many insurance firms are reporting a 250% increase in claims for water damage following the big freeze.
Neighbours often spot visitors to the properties who turn up to collect parcel deliveries and benefit cheques.
Many landlords set up an informal house watch scheme by giving neighbours a contact number to call in the event of any problems with a vacant property.
Although letting agents confirm letting voids are reducing, many homes can expect to stand empty for at least two or three weeks in a year, giving crooks and squatters a window of opportunity to wreak havoc.