CA’s Beth Rudolf on Cyberfraud, Land Registry Privatisation and being proud of your work
The Conveyancing Association’s Directory of Delivery, Beth de Montjoie Rudolf, recently launched their Cyberfraud Campaign and Protocol. As well as her work at the CA she has worked in the industry for 30 years and currently runs the Conveyancing Services Development team at Brighter Law.
She told Today’s Conveyancer’s Jane Common about the Cyber Fraud Protocol, why conveyancers should be proud of what they do, as well as her thoughts on Land Registry Privatisation.
You’ve been in the conveyancing industry for a while, Beth, and viewed it from lots of different angles. What do you enjoy about the roles you hold now?
“I was an estate agent initially and then I trained and worked as a conveyancer for 25 years. I’ve tutored too – teaching people doing the legal executive conveyancing and licensed conveyancing courses – and now I’m a consultant. For the past 18 months I’ve been working for the Conveyancing Association as their Director of Delivery, developing and running their campaigns, and I really enjoy it.
“Conveyancing became tough because the fees we were able to charge were so slim and there wasn’t the money or time to deliver a good service. Now I have the opportunity to work with others to change that and make it better so I’m selecting clients, through my consultancy, who I want to work with because I believe they have a desire to improve the conveyancing process. The Conveyancing Association definitely has that ethos and so does Brighter Law, which helps law firms take control of their fee scales using management information reporting and data interpreted by their business champions.”
And you’ve been leading the Conveyancing Association’s Cyberfraud Campaign?
“The scheme is designed to help members combat fraud through telling their clients how they can protect themselves. There were nine cyber attacks in conveyancing in 2015 (that’s successful attacks – there were many more attempts) and we’ve had 28 in the first five months of this year. So the problem’s growing – the criminals have worked out a formula and now they’re milking it. Often the blame lands at the conveyancer’s door but there’s more to it and there are really simple ways the public can protect themselves – being careful what they post on social media for one.
“For example, if a buyer posts on social media ‘Hooray we’ve had our offer accepted’ that’s a green light to the criminals. They now know that person is buying a house and will try to tap into their email, which in 99.9% of cases won’t be encrypted, to work out who their solicitor and estate agent is. Then they’re away. So when the home mover emails a friend and says ‘We’ve exchanged’ the fraudsters know the money will be transferred soon and they will send a message, pretending to be from the solicitor, informing them that their bank details have changed and asking for the funds to be paid into a new account.
“A few hours later the buyer might start to wonder why the solicitor hasn’t rung to say he or she’s received the money but by then it’s too often late. And people have lost huge amounts of money through this – one buyer recently lost £240,000. Imagine it – you’ve been saving for years for a deposit or maybe that money is a gift from your family or an inheritance and bang, it’s gone.”
So how is the Conveyancing Association advising members to react to this threat?
“We’ve produced a warning card for our members to send to their clients telling them about the risks, advising them to be careful about what they post on social media and suspicious of any communications they receive. And along with that warning card we’re advising our members to send their bank details and a trusted phone number to clients by post at the start of the transaction and to tell them that if they receive an email saying those details have changed to call them immediately. Sent, through the post, as a separate communication with a big headline warning about cybercrime, it won’t be buried on page nine of the client care letter. It’s a simple but incredibly effective protocol – to develop it I spoke to GCHQ and communications experts at the Department of Media, Culture and Sports. They said just following Cyber Essentials will cut out 85% of the risk so adding this protocol on top is getting up to about 95% safe.”
What are the big issues in conveyancing at the moment, cybercrime apart?
“Land Registry privatisation obviously – at the Conveyancing Association we had a vote and the majority didn’t support it. But the big thing about the privatisation, if it does go ahead, is that we need to ensure the people who are drafting the contract with the service provider know every single thing that needs to be controlled by that contract. So we’re urging our members to respond to the consultation, particularly if they use Land Registry data in a particular way – the guys who are managing this don’t know, at the grass roots level, how some of the information is used. There are so many questions around this: how will freedom of information requests be dealt with?; how will we ensure sanctity of the registers?; will there be an Office of Chief Registrar as at the moment they’re talking about placing it under the umbrella of HM Stationery Office? The current Chief Registrar is the best we’ve had in years.
“Aside from the Land Registry issue, there’s the simmering problem of getting houses on the market to meet demand. And there’s the fact that, according to the National Association of Estate Agents, it’s now taking transactions 14 weeks to move from offer to completion. That’s too long – and getting longer. Rob Hailstone on our round table recently said: ‘When I started as a conveyancer in the 1970s the process was faster, there was less risk and more certainty than there is today.’ So much for progress, eh?
“Then there’s the consultation the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are putting out on the home moving process. At the Conveyancing Association we got all the different stakeholders together and talked about pain points. Several things emerged as problems: access to local authority data (some local authorities aren’t letting search agents in for four weeks) and mortgage companies taking up to 49 days to approve applications. Whereas before people could get a mortgage in principle really quickly and that was almost a guarantee they’d get final approval, these days because it costs mortgage companies so much in money and resources to do the affordability checks the mortgage in principle is just a: ‘Well, on your salary you should be all right’. Once they get the mortgage booking fee, then the lenders go through an applicant’s bank statements forensically and tell them to cut out their weekly curry or cancel a life insurance policy to gain approval. It’s insanely difficult and why? If you look at repossessions in April 2016 for example there were 322 – in the last recession there were 76,000.
“Leasehold is another issue – at the Association we’re working with other stakeholders to try to ensure that delays in the provision of Leasehold sales information are reduced and that reasonable fees are charged to provide it. We’re also working on a campaign to try and improve communication between lenders and law firms.
“What else? Well, it’s a shame we don’t have the secure portal arrangement we expected by this point; hopefully we will see other things being developing in the market to fill those gaps.”
So are conveyancers happy with their lot in your opinion?
“Well, they work ridiculous hours – on a typical Wednesday before Easter they are still at their desks at 10pm trying to get everything ready. And there’s not a lot of thanks for it – a while ago people understood what conveyancers did but now, because the industry has been devalued so badly, it’s seen as a rubber stamping process. We need to help consumers understand the value in conveyancing and get the net fees up to where they should be – then there will be time to focus on customer services, which is often poor. When I started in conveyancing in Swindon back in 1990 my USP was the fact that I gave weekly updates to my clients. Frighteningly, when I was in conveyancing again 20 years later, it was still considered a USP to give a written weekly update to clients. That should be standard everywhere by now.”
How can conveyancers make the public more aware of what they do?
“At the Conveyancing Association we’ve produced videos taking clients through the process and explaining the different steps in the transaction. Consumers still have this fear of solicitors – often they put on a suit for an appointment with us and, while that’s flattering, they shouldn’t be scared. Conveyancers too, need to view talking to clients as a fun part of the job, not an ordeal. Sadly lawyers who dabble in conveyancing take the approach that they have to argue every single point whereas actually it should be a collaborative sport. So communication is key.”
If you could give a conveyancer one piece of advice, what would it be?
“Be sensible about fees and confident that you can increase them. Looking at the information that Brighter Law collects, across the Brighter Suite only around 5% of people buy on price. Most home movers want proactivity and communication. Have faith and confidence in your service. Find a way of collecting information on your quotes so you can identify the people in your business who are best at converting the quote to an instruction. Then track that conversion rate as you increase your fee to find the optimum price which people will pay for your service.
“Capacity management is vital. At Brighter Law we advise conveyancers, when practicable, to have a busy fee scale. So when you’re reaching capacity any work you do take on is profitable. The better the service, the higher the fee, the higher the fee the more resource you can afford to deliver a better service and so it goes on.
“Why have estate agents’ fees gone up so much and not ours? Well, because they pegged theirs to the property prices whereas we’re encouraged to charge a fixed fee. That’s fine so long as the natural effects of supply and demand are allowed to operate. Conveyancers need to take control.”
For more information about the Conveyancing Association’s latest campaigns around cyber-fraud and increasing public awareness of the conveyancer’s role in a property transaction log on to www.conveyancingassociation.org.uk