Land fraud is a topic generating much discussion in the local scene. Owners, especially those who have been living abroad for long periods of time upon their return home, find to their utter dismay properties held by them for decades fraudulently sold to third parties!
One may ask, how can this be possible? It is possible through the involvement of unscrupulous people who have access to the owner’s land records, either at the Land Registry or at the local government office (i.e. Pradeshiya Sabha). Unless there is a secure registration and document preservation system in place, where only authorized persons have access to official records, land fraud is bound to take place.
It should also be the duty of all Notaries to check the back ground of a seller seeking full disclosure, before taking upon an assignment to execute and notarize a transaction.
Till measures to protect land title are put in place by the Authorities, owners need to take steps to safeguard their ownership of properties. Following are some steps that may help in this process -
1. If you are an owner living abroad and your house remains closed and land unattended, periodically have your lawyer check the registration status of your land at the relevant Land Registry. Has someone already fraudulently acquired the land? The registration details will reveal this. If so, immediately have it reported to the police and to the relevant Land Registrar.
2. A method that could alert you of any unauthorized transaction relating to your property is to register a Caveat on your land. A Caveat is a notice registered at the relevant Land Registry which has a record of your land. As long as the Caveat is in place, the Land Registrar is duty bound to inform the person who registers the Caveat when he receives any document for registration referring to the said land. This can be a sale, mortgage, lease, etc.
But unfortunately, a Caveat cannot prevent the registration of a document relating to your land if it appears to be genuine. In the event a fraudster impersonates your signature in a sales transaction and the Registrar accepts it for registration, since you failed to object as the actual owner in spite of the notice served on you or your registered representative based on the Caveat, then the only remedy left would be to file action to invalidate the fraudulent land transaction through the courts of law.
3. It is in the interest of owners to periodically check their unoccupied land and keep it in a properly maintained condition. Neglected land, especially of owners living abroad, tend to be the target of fraudsters.