A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The Case of the Man Who Never Was
Explanation: Tenancy Relations Officers (TRO) work for local council’s providing advice on landlord tenant law and investigating allegations of harassment and Illegal Eviction and prosecuting landlords. All names are false but the stories are true.
A family in trouble
Tayo, from Nigeria fetches up as my first emergency of Monday morning, accompanied by his Polish wife and 10 month old baby. Neither are best pleased.
He tells me that he started renting a room in a house in 2004 and he met his wife who moved into the room with him 18 months ago, just before the birth of their child. He returned home late on Saturday night and found 3 men there changing the locks, he protested and was told to go forth and multiply. So, fearful for his safety, he left.
Ten minutes later he thought that if he was going to spend a night on the streets he would need some things so he returned and asked to be let back in just to get some basics. They responded by threatening him with a screwdriver, so he left again pronto.
Help from the police
His wife was visiting family in Krakow so he slept that night on the streets. When his wife returned on Sunday night they both went to the police station and explained the situation. They let them stay the night at the station in the reception area and told him to come and see me first thing.
A note on the door
I telephoned the landlady but she didn’t respond. A quick visit to the house revealed a shiny new Yale lock that his key wouldn’t fit into. I couldn’t raise any other tenants but found a remarkably erudite note wedged in the door frame saying “Further to written notice (dated 21st September 2010) given to you previously more than 4 months ago, I have today changed the locks and am holding a lien over your goods and will sell them as I see fit, to defray some of the rent outstanding” The letter ended “In front of witnesses you categorically stated that you would not pay one Franc (Penny) sic and even threatened me with physical violence”. Signed by the landlady Ms Edeki.
The curiously reluctant litigant
So now the allegation is backed up by the note (presuming it wasn’t written by the tenant himself). I tell him that we need to go to court for an injunction for re-entry and prevention of further harassment. He is keen to do this until I mention that court proceedings will be under his name because he is the named tenant, not his wife.
He looks alarmed by this and says he wants it taken out in his wife’s name. I ask him why and he limply replies “Because…….. she is my wife”. Through narrowed, suspicious eyes I say “Have we got a problem here?”, thinking immigration issues, but he says no and agrees to do it in his name.
Ben goes to Court
So we shoot off to court, he pays the required fee and we stick the ex parte application in. an hour later we are in front of the judge. I show him the note and explain the situation and he duly grants the injunction, with instructions for the landlord to let Tayo back in and to allow him quiet enjoyment without further harassment.
At 8am the next day I am at Ms Edeki’s door, which curiously has a poster stuck to it saying “Only God can judge me: Ezekiel 3.2”. A very solemn looking woman opens the door and says “Yes” when I ask her name. She took the injunction out of my hand without a word and closed the door, so I don’t get a chance to ask her what she is going to do about it.
Meanwhile we have Tayo and his family in a Bed and Breakfast hotel provided by the homelessness unit while we sort this out.
Threats to kill
Two days later Tayo turns up saying he is frightened. He has received a telephone call from someone he refuses to name, threatening to kill him. He also reports that 3 members of the landlord’s family found him at the temporary accommodation and it was only the arrival of some other people that saved his bacon – they ran off. He demands to be moved to different accommodation.
Ms Edeki is still not answering the phone and has completely ignored the injunction. Tayo says he is too scared to carry on and asks me to cancel the action. We have a bit of debate about this but eventually I decide that it will be pointless pursuing a case with an uncooperative tenant so I contact the court and get it removed from the list.
A homelessness application is made
TRO involvement is thus ended and now it is over to the homelessness posse to do what is called a Part VII claim (homeless application). His wife and baby are crucial to his application because it shows he is in what is called ‘Priority Need’ and is therefore owed more complex duties. However, when he is called to the formal interview he turns up minus wife and minus necessary documents, stating that she has an infection.
He gets re-scheduled and again turns up alone with the same excuse. Eventually I step back in and tell him that he has to come back in 3 days time and that if his wife isn’t with him we will cancel the temporary accommodation.
Ben smells a rat
Alarm bells are ringing now. Why was he so un-willing to take out an injunction in his name? Why is his wife never with him? Why does he look permanently nervous? Why would he not tell me who made the threatening phone call? Where are his documents?
He finally turns up with wife and son, and his documents. He has a Certificate of Approval for Marriage issued by the Home Office, which is normal but it is badly photocopied though and the photo of him has a distinctly different shaped head. More alarm bells.
I then got hold of his passport and saw the ruse straight away. It is an old style one with the classic tell-tale sign of having been tampered with.
School for Scoundrels
There are 2 ways to fake documents. One is to use an existing legal document but add your own photo, or details, the other is to simply fake the documents themselves.
Believe it or not you can buy ID cards and other documents for anywhere in the world on the internet from dedicated sites, easy as pie. But they don’t have the invisible security information of the originals. Good enough to get you into a club if you are underage or even to open a bank account but not when it is placed under professional optical equipment.
Every country in the world changes their passport style regularly to deter fraudsters. Some are easier to fake than others. For instance the Jamaican passport from 2003 – 2004 has very little security information on it, so is a prime candidate for fraudsters and always worth a closer look, and a previous Portuguese one simply had a loose passport photo stapled on with a pin, you only had to pull the old one off and add your own.
The things you can do these days with kitchen equipment!
I don’t know if you know this but if you want to steal someone’s identity with an older style passport (and only a couple of years older) you need 2 pieces of kitchen equipment, a microwave and a freezer. You chuck it into the microwave and the passport expands and splits, you remove the original photo, insert your own and then chuck it into the freezer under a weight, where it contracts again and re-seals itself. You can then sell it on ………………Honestly,…….the things you learn growing up in South East London……shameful!
When faked in this way they look fine to the untrained eye but if you look closely there is always a revealing air pocket surrounding the photo, just a couple of millimetres or so but enough to send out an alert. That was the give-away with Tayo’s.
The ID card does it
He then produced his ID card, that was the real clincher. If you look on the website ‘Document Checker’ it tells you everything that should be shown on a range of international documents, including how they should look when placed under UV light.
His looked perfect in plain sight, until I stuck it under our UVV. There was no security information, which are usually complex patterns that show up under the light but not to the naked eye……his was a total fake.
When I went back into the interview room to confront him with my discoveries his wife said he had stepped outside for a cigarette…………..he was never seen again. Funny that!
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben has worked in housing in one form or another since 1987. He has variously been a Homelessness caseworker, Head of Homelessness for a local authority, a TRO and Housing law trainer. He now divides his time between doing contract Tenancy Relations work and as a Freelance housing law training consultant for the CIH, Shelter, Sitra and many more. Read more about Ben here and visit his website here.