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19 June 2013, 18:32 | Updated: 19 June 2013, 18:59
Five people who conned 17,000 people using companies in Suffolk have been found guilty.
Five fraudsters, including an ex police detective, have been found guilty of playing a part in escort and debt scams that conned over 17,000
victims out of £5.7 million.
Mark Bell from Ipswich, Colin Samuels from Redgrave in Suffolk and Geraldine French from Lowestoft were each found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to defraud.
Bradley Rogers from Spain and Christopher Taylor from Wakefield were each found guilty of one count of money laundering.
It follows the group’s linchpin and organiser, Antoni Muldoon, pleading guilty to two counts of conspiracy to defraud in September 2012.
Stuart Hughes was one of the investigators for Suffolk Trading Standards and spoke to Heart reporter Hannah Griffiths:
The ten-week trial at Ipswich Crown Court heard how multiple companies were set up as part of a fraud and money laundering operation that encouraged victims to part with cash in return for guaranteed work as non-sexual escorts and, separately, to help eliminate debts.
In the escort fraud cases, 14,000 UK victims were enticed to register, for a £250-£450 fee, as escorts in the hope of earning income by accompanying clients on dates, events and dinners. Following registration, victims would be called and offered a guaranteed first date and income from it - to get them to part with the fee.
Once the fees were paid, the date would be cancelled and no further work was ever arranged or refund offered.
Consumers were openly lied to about any links between the separate websites, meaning that some unwittingly paid to register twice.
In the debt elimination cases, some 3,300 victims were cold called and told that any credit agreements they had entered into prior to 2007 were unenforceable - and that debts could be written off for an upfront fee of between £540 to over £2000. Consumers were also promised refunds if their claims were unsuccessful.
Consumers received template letters to send to their banks instructing them to forward financial information to the fraudsters - and were then left for long periods without updates. Complaints were met with delaying tactics and refusals to refund. Eventually, the companies disappeared leaving the consumers out of pocket.
The case was brought by Suffolk Trading Standards following a three and a half year investigation.
Originally, separate complaints about the frauds were received, but they were quickly linked as part of a wider investigation. Millions of pounds poured through various bank accounts linked to the frauds - with some being funnelled to accounts in Spain.
During the investigation, it was found that money obtained through the the fraud was used to buy property and boats for Muldoon, including a 10 bedroom villa worth over £500,000. The fraudsters were able to evade detection by lying to the Ministry of Justice about the true nature of their businesses and connections to Muldoon and his organisation.
Stuart Hughes, the senior investigation officer tasked by Suffolk Trading Standards to handle the case, said:
“This verdict provides some justice for the victims of this fraud who were dealt with so disgracefully. False promises and false hopes were offered to consumers regarding the likelihood of work or ability to clear debts. None of those promises were met. For the victims, the outcome was devastating and left them in a worse financial position than they were before.
“The fraud was founded on deceit, dishonesty and greed, demonstrated by a series of lies made to consumers, banks and enforcement agencies over a long period in order to perpetuate the fraud. Through this verdict, those lies have finally been found out.
“The outcome of this case sends a clear message that Suffolk Trading Standards will vigorously enforce the law and pursue individuals within our borders, across the UK and even abroad where fraud is committed in Suffolk or used to deprive Suffolk residents of their money. We are committed to rid Suffolk of rogue traders and will continue to do so using every means available.”
Detective Sergeant Allan Forbes, of Suffolk Police, said: “This inquiry is a positive example of public authorities working jointly towards a common purpose with Suffolk Police assisting in this Trading Standards-led investigation.
“The case is one that was made difficult by the suspects operating outside of the United Kingdom, but liaison with UK and European Law Enforcement Agencies, plus the use of European Arrest Warrants allowed the inquiry to pursue justice on behalf of the numerous victims who could ill afford to lose the money they lost to this criminal enterprise.
“A financial investigation under the Proceeds of Crime Act continues with a view to a confiscation hearing for those convicted, where assets will be sought and compensation applied for.”