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26 Aug 2020

Scammers hijack EWS1 process with fake cladding inspection forms

Cladding regulation chaos exploited by fraudsters who have stolen thousands from leaseholders
Modern luxury flat apartments

Leaseholders are being duped into paying thousands of pounds to fraudsters faking inspection forms amid concerns over fire safety.

Which? has evidence that at least one firm has issued fake External Wall Fire Review (EWS1) forms to several apartment buildings across the country.

The forged forms, used to confirm whether a building contains materials that carry an increased fire risk, may also have been used to contract out thousands of pounds worth of work based on lies.

The scammers have forged the names and signatures of qualified surveyors to pass and fail buildings. Some forms we've seen have been signed off by surveyors who simply don't exist.

In another case, 'cladding technicians' without the necessary qualifications have also signed off EWS1 forms (you can read more about these forms here).

We believe some of the fake EWS1 forms could be used to tender millions of pounds worth of construction work and fire safety measures to linked companies with vested interests.

More trouble for cladding controversy

This is the latest scandal in the government's troubled attempts to improve fire safety in apartment buildings after the Grenfell tragedy in 2017.

The implications of faked forms could be huge, potentially voiding mortgages and home insurance policies that have been agreed off the back of false documents.

A flat owner in London, who didn't want to be named, told us he's discovered leaseholders in his building have paid £20,000 for surveys and a forged EWS1 form. He believes the surveys were never carried out.

Peter, a leaseholder in a building in Cardiff that was targeted by scammers, realised the form supplied to them was fake just before leaseholders were about to pay more than £100,000.

Luckily, one of the block's volunteer directors discovered that the company invoicing them wasn't insured to do the work.

He told us: 'We looked into it further and realised a lot of things didn't add up. It's just incredible that this has happened.'

Concerns over form confusion

But what does a legitimate EWS1 form look like? And who can issue one?

The EWS1 process was created by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), UK Finance and the Buildings Societies Association (BSA).

You can see what one looks like here (downloads a PDF).

It aims to identify buildings made of highly flammable materials that the government has recently said are unsafe. It gives lenders confidence to offer mortgages and gives buyers peace of mind.

But there is a lack of clarity over who is qualified to carry out a survey and sign off the forms that pass or fail a building. There is also no regulation of the system.

This, coupled with huge demand for the work and few surveyors who are qualified to do it, means it hasn't taken long for criminals to exploit loopholes.

'Check the signatory on your form'

A spokesperson for RICS, UK Finance and the BSAsaid: 'We have been made aware that unqualified people may be signing off EWS1 forms. RICS condemns anyone using the current situation for their own gain, with potentially dangerous consequences for residents.

'Government advice requires all potentially unsafe cladding systems to be checked, and the EWS form was developed with this in mind. Any building where the makeup of the walls is uncertain must be checked by a qualified professional.

'Banks and building societies have measures in place to protect people against fraud, which would pick up any EWS form that is suspicious, but we encourage everyone to check the signatory on a form with the profession's institution. If an RICS member is completing your EWS1 form, you can check their membership on our website.'

'We would urge that any further information related to this is made available to trading standards and RICS if appropriate.'

We've also asked the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for comment.

The implications of fake forms

The EWS1 form reports the findings of a survey that checks whether the materials used in a building comply with fire safety regulations. A building can be given a pass or fail.

If a building fails, any materials or structure that doesn't comply will need to be replaced. The costs of this can run into millions - a burden currently being passed onto a building's leaseholders through service charges.

It can take years for the work to be carried out. And until the building is safe, it could be deemed a serious fire risk if it's made of the most flammable types of materials.

Because of this, interim safety measures are recommended such as installation of expensive fire alarm systems and even 'waking watches'.

This is where fire marshals are brought in 24/7 to monitor buildings for fire. Again, it's an unregulated industry and the costs are passed on to the leaseholders.

But any work or fire watches brought in as a result of a fake reports could be invalid and a real survey by qualified surveyors will need to be carried out.

Many mortgage lenders also now request an EWS1 pass to offer mortgages on apartment buildings.

This also means that any mortgages agreed based on fake forms could be worthless. The same could be said for insurance.

If you've been issued a fake form

Checking the credentials of whoever has signed off on the work should give you an idea about whether a form is genuine. You should be able to find information online about whether they have the right experience and qualifications to carry out this kind of work.

The RICS website includes a list of qualifications a surveyor carrying out these inspections should hold.

If you find out your EWS1 form is fake, report it to the police, Action Fraud and Trading Standards.

If any money has been paid, it should be reported to the bank from where the account was held.

Your form could be void and you'll need to get a new survey carried out by a qualified surveyor who will need to issue a new EWS1 form.

In most cases, these surveys, and any remedial work or interim measures, are arranged by a building's managing agent on the leaseholders' behalf.

Have you been affected? Tell us your story at scamwatch@which.co.uk.