Hornchurch homes among many across London hit by address scam

Newsquest began investigating after almost a third of residents in one Havering street fell victim to the gang, who pick a street or postcode and set up numerous companies.

We found evidence the same scammers targeted addresses all over London – and beyond.

They have set up firms in Barnet, Bow, Bromley, Crayford, Croydon, East Ham, Eltham, Feltham, Ilford and Islington.

We turned our findings over to Companies House and HMRC.

Companies House has promised to use “new powers” to tackle the problem.

The tip-off

Newsquest was contacted last week by residents in Priors Park, Hornchurch, where 14 companies have been opened since February.

Ten out of 36 houses in the street have been targeted. The first the owners knew was when Companies House sent letters congratulating them on opening their new businesses.

“Straight away, we started panicking: Oh my God, are they going to take out loans using our address? Are we going to have debt collectors coming here?” said Karen Jones.

“When I looked into it, they don’t have to provide any proof that they are registered at this address. But to undo it, I do have to prove this is my address. It’s totally ludicrous. I can’t decide what’s worse – the scam, or the paperwork to fix it.”

Your Local Guardian: Karen Jones found out scammers had hijacked her address when a letter arrived from Companies HouseKaren Jones found out scammers had hijacked her address when a letter arrived from Companies House (Image: Karen Jones)

“It’s a total pain in the arse,” agreed neighbour and fellow victim Colm Nolan.

“Trying to get it fixed has been terrible. You’ve got to jump through such hoops.

“I was talking to the fraud office and they said the number of times this happens is unbelievable.”

Serial scammers

The 14 companies in Priors Park were set up by eight supposed directors: Qiwang Fan, Qixing Fan, Zhaoyin/Zhaoying Fan, Lulu Guo, Li Quan, Faying Ye, Zeqiang Yuan and Lixia Zhang.

By researching company directors with the same names and birth dates, we found the same scammers have done this over and over again for months.

In Bow Road, Bow, three businesses were opened in five days in the same block of flats: Electric House.

In Wannock Gardens, Ilford, five companies were opened. Six were registered in Pickard Close, Barnet.

Multiple firms were started in Lansdowne Road, Bromley; Violet Lane, Croydon; Mackenzie Road, Islington; and Chadwick Terrace, Eltham.

Your Local Guardian: There are 36 homes in Priors Park, Hornchurch. Ten of them were used as company addresses by scammers within weeks of one anotherThere are 36 homes in Priors Park, Hornchurch. Ten of them were used as company addresses by scammers within weeks of one another (Image: Charles Thomson)

In one street called Craigseaton, in Buxton, Scotland, 17 companies were opened.

The scammers even opened a company in New Malden High Street, supposedly raising buffalo.

“You’d think this sort of suspicious activity would be noticed by Companies House,” said Karen.

‘Criminals don’t care’

According to former Met Police organised crime detective Dave McKelvey, scammers try to avoid detection by keeping their grifts small.

He now runs private investigation firm TM Eye, specialising in corporate crime.

Dave believes it’s “massive VAT fraud”.

“We did a job recently and identified a block of flats in east London where lots of companies had been opened.

“It’s been going on for years. They register for VAT, produce fraudulent invoices and claim the VAT back – then just disappear off the face of the earth.

“A bit like shoplifting, by keeping it small and doing it lots and lots of times, they achieve the same outcome as doing one big job but can almost guarantee they’ll never be investigated.

“But there is always a risk of people being dragged into something that’s nothing to do with them. The criminals don’t care. They make their money, disappear and don’t give a monkey’s about some poor, innocent member of the public ending up under investigation.”

Your Local Guardian: Fourteen companies were registered at innocent people's home addresses in Priors Park, Hornchurch, within weeks of one anotherFourteen companies were registered at innocent people’s home addresses in Priors Park, Hornchurch, within weeks of one another (Image: Charles Thomson)

The authorities

“We recognise how the fraudulent misuse of the register can be a source of significant stress and upset for innocent people,” Companies House said – but claimed its system for undoing fraudulent registrations “has been made quicker and easier”.

The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, brought in last year, banned companies from using PO Boxes and gave Companies House more power to query information.

“Using our new powers, we will prioritise resolving these cases and develop our intelligence capability to increase our work with law enforcement,” it said.

HMRC said there was not yet any evidence of VAT fraud by the companies registered in Priors Park, but it “has safeguards in place to prevent incorrect addresses being used for VAT registration”.

“Residents should not be concerned about their tax liability in this situation,” it said.

“Anyone receiving letters from us for a business they aren’t aware of at their address should return the post to us marked ‘not at this address’ and report it to us.”

Adblock test (Why?)