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Identity checks and Safe Harbour.

Safe Harbour Checks: Are Firms and Customers Protected?


February 16, 2024

The need for robust security measures is among the top priorities for British law firms. One such measure, Safe Harbour checks, initially hailed as a safeguard against fraud, is now revealing chinks in its armor. This article explores loopholes in identity check protocols that fraudsters are increasingly taking advantage of.

Safe Harbour Checks: a Fake Solution to Real Problems?


Back in 2021, the HM Land Registry introduced the Safe Harbour standard.

In theory, Safe Harbour should have enhanced and regulated digital identity checks performed by conveyancers and law firms.

An additional layer of protection against identity theft and fraud by false representation, safeguarding both clients and legal professionals.

The advantages were quite clear:

  • For private citizens, standardised protocols should offer greater consistency and protection.
  • For conveyancers, complying with the Safe Harbour standard prevents the risk of prosecution for negligence in identity checks.


However, after almost 3 years since its implementation, the system is showing worrying signs of weak points.

In fact, far from being a foolproof barrier, criminals seem to consider Safe Harbour nothing more than a mere procedural hurdle.

How exactly was this possible?

To address this question, let us start at the beginning.


The 4 Requirements for Safe Digital Identity Checks


Safe Harbour identity checks contain four comprehensive requirements to ensure a robust defence against fraudulent activities.

Conveyancers, solicitors or law firms need to satisfy these requirements to comply effectively.

Let's explore the requirements in detail.


1 – Obtain the Evidence

The first step in Safe Harbour checks is confirming the true identity of the individual being represented.

To meet this requirement, biometric and cryptographic capabilities come into play. The required evidence typically incorporates an electronically held photograph for biometric facial recognition.

Biometric passports, identity cards from EU or EEA countries, and UK biometric residence permits are all good examples.


2 – Check the Evidence

Needless to say, after meeting the first requirement, checking the genuineness and currency of the evidence is crucial.

This includes checking the digital signature's originality and validity via Near Field Communication (NFC), and extracting biometric information.

Be careful: merely checking the evidence through a photograph or the Machine Readable Zone does not fulfil this requirement. Meaning that an official identity check provider is essential.


3 – Match the Evidence to the Identity

After the verification, the next step is to ensure that the person's information matches the relevant photographic evidence.

The identity check provider cross-references the biometric information collected in Requirement 2 with the documentation and photographic evidence submitted by the person.

The provider should also conduct an anti-spoofing check to identify any presentation attacks, employing a biometric algorithm proven effective against recognized benchmarks.


4 – Ensure the Lender, Borrower or Renter is the Same Person as the Owner

Conveyancers involved in property transactions must go a step further by obtaining two examples of evidence. These will serve to verify the name and address of the person claiming a particular identity.

Evidence can include recent utility bills and bank or building society statements. But also council tax bills, photo card driving licences, or insurance policy schedules.

The conveyancer should also carry out identity verification checks for individual signatories. These checks are valid for up to six months for individuals signing in multiple transactions.

After six months, repeating the checks is compulsory.


Meeting the Safe Harbour Standard

To satisfy the Safe Harbour Standard, conveyancers must successfully complete all four requirements. Additionally, they must remain vigilant of any irregular activities throughout the transaction process until completion.

Recording all evidence and being prepared to conduct additional checks and inquiries is crucial.


Identity Theft Tactics

While on the surface, Safe Harbour checks seem like a great solution to thwart fraud attempts, the reality is far from reassuring.

Let's see which weaknesses fraudsters are exploiting to adapt and bypass this system.


The 'Optional Safety' Issue

The first, simple problem of Safe Harbour checks is that they are optional. Adherence is encouraged, yet the costs and time to follow such procedures can deter many.

Worst of all, following half-baked protocols to reassure clients can lead to great confusion and uncertainty industry-wide.


Rise of New Online Frauds

Over time, the modus operandi of fraudsters has evolved to bypass the supposedly secure Safe Harbour checks.

Identity theft tactics have become more sophisticated, leaving law firms susceptible to malicious intent. By employing various means such as social engineering, phishing, and hacking, criminals can compromise personal information.

Click here for a more detailed account of cyber-frauds.


Tick in the Box Mentality

Another issue deals with the perception of Safe Harbour checks as a simple routine, tick-in-the-box exercise.

Often delegated to junior staff, undermining its importance amidst haste and deadlines is more common than expected.

This complacency creates a blind spot, allowing fraudsters to slip through the cracks unnoticed.


Law Firms' Excess of Confidence

Title fraud attempts are on the rise, and Safe Harbour checks, rather than serving as a deterrent, can facilitate frauds.

Unsuspecting law firms, confident in the efficacy of their security measures, may become unwitting accomplices of identity theft.

The fight against identity theft goes beyond protocols, and over-reliance on these procedures can even be dangerous.


Fighting Identity Theft

In light of these challenges, law firms need to carefully assess and enhance their identity verification processes. Implementing stringent measures is paramount.

Regular training sessions for staff is useful to foster a culture of vigilance can help bridge the existing gaps. Safe Harbour checks should serve the aim of safeguarding law firms and their clients from identity theft, title fraud and other situations alike.

To ensure safety, law firms have to acknowledge the limitations of Safe Harbour checks, taking proactive measures to fortify their defences.

Only a comprehensive and dynamic approach to identity verification can ensure that the Safe Harbour remains truly safe. Failing to do so entails a high price to pay.

Identity theft can lead to property fraud, credit score degradation, property laundering and much more.

At Title Guardian, we have made the mission of ensuring safe and verified transactions our own.

Within our digital vigilance system, all properties and identities are 100% safe.

Find out here how we help law firms secure their clients' identities.

Verifying and securing a property portfolio is invaluable to ensure financial safety and gain leverage in real estate transactions.

Explore our resources to know more about our services for property holders.

Shield your Identity