Paradise lost: How your friendly, neighbourhood conman is out to fleece you

KEEP this just between us, but it seems I’m about to inherit a shedload of dosh.

That’s why I’m racking my brains whether to plump for the Bentley Continental or the Aston Martin Vantage (it’ll probably be the Bentley, because the boot space can handle the small Himalaya of Louis Vuitton luggage my missus is ordering).

Anyway, as I said, it’s hush-hush, because I’m planning to surprise the kids with a postcard from Barbados, saying, ‘We’re in the money – glad you’re not here!’

Apparently, according to some firm of dogged heir hunters in Nigeria, a long deceased relative I never knew I had has left a fortune from mining diamonds and it’s never been claimed.

As luck would have it, they’ve managed to trace me via the internet. Now all I need do is send them my banking details and – hey presto! – I’ll be in the Forbes Magazine Rich List.

Funnily enough, as I mentioned two weeks ago, I recently received an email from another Nigerian, a kindly financier who promised that if I invested twenty thou with him he’d multiply it a hundredfold within a month.

You’ve got to hand it to these African whiz-kids. When it comes to cash, they really know what they’re doing.

That’s because they’re major players in the league of international conmen; all rapacious scamsters, hard-nosed hustlers, grifters or rip-off merchants by any other, scummy name.

And they’re all around, like a nasty rash – ‘phishing’ on online and phone for your bank security codes or in your face, posing as ‘financial gurus’ with get-rich-quick schemes guaranteed to deliver the golden goose…except its golden eggs fly from your pocket straight into their feathered nests, usually offshore.

Last week, the culmination of a two-year, joint operation between British and Spanish anti-fraud squads saw 110 suspects arrested in London, Manchester, Barcelona, Madrid, Marbella, Serbia and Florida when an alleged £15M (€18M) ‘boiler-room’ scam was busted.

BOILER-ROOM BUST: British and Spanish police swoop on alleged fraudsters in a £15M share-selling scam

BOILER-ROOM BUST: British and Spanish police swoop on alleged fraudsters in a £15M share-selling scam

It’s said to have tricked at least 850 Brits living in Spain and the UK into buying non-existent or, at best, worthless shares.

The fraudsters are reported to have spent the takings on £multi-million mansions in the sun, fast cars, drugs and prostitutes.

There’s nothing new about money-sucking lice preying on the financially naïve and, in the case of ‘boiler-room’ cons, the prime targets are innocent pensioners, some with just meagre savings.

The term ‘boiler-room’, incidentally, refers to the high-pressure techniques employed by sales ’advisers’ and the fact they often operate from small, cramped offices – maybe even a flat in a block of innocuous apartments – which draw little attention from neighbours.

Lists of potential investors can be bought from bent stockbrokers or data-capture firms which peddle personal information.

The scammers then contact the investor (a.k.a. the ‘mark’) offering tempting returns and they pester until the target’s resistance is so utterly exhausted, they cough up their bank or credit card details.

Sometimes the hustlers even pay out a small ‘dividend’ as bait for the ‘mark’ to part with more cash and often they do.

BROKEN MAN: Hirst, the fallen conman, going to court before his nine-year sentence - Photo: Huddersfield Examiner

BROKEN MAN: Hirst, the fallen conman, going to court to hear his nine-year sentence – Photo: Huddersfield Examiner

That’s a classic, Ponzi-scheme ploy, like the one crafted by conman, John Hirst, who hoovered an estimated £10M (€12M) from gullible clients here in Mallorca and the UK into his Seychelles-based Gilher ‘fund’ until 2009, when I helped unmask the callous fraud in stories for the Sunday Telegraph.

Part of the coverage revealed the Yorkshireman – dubbed the ‘Bernie Madoff of Mallorca’, after his multi-millionaire lifestyle was laid bare – had served a prison sentence in the 1990s for rooking miners out of their redundancy pay.

The reports triggered an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office and, in 2012, Hirst pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud and money laundering at Bradford Crown Court and was sentenced to nine years imprisonment.

His accomplice, corrupt accountant Richard Pollett, was jailed for six-and-a-half years after being found guilty to defraud, while Hirst’s spendthrift wife, Linda Waite, was banged up for 30 months for money laundering and deception.

SMILING SCAMSTERS: Richard Pollett (left) with John Hirst in the good times, when their con was scooping millions

SMILING SCAMSTERS: Richard Pollett (left) with John Hirst in the good times, when their con was scooping millions

If it’s any consolation to Gilher victims – many of whom were introduced to the scam by friends who’d already fallen into Hirst’s
sugared trap – there’s a possibility they may see some of their money again, if only a fraction of their original ‘investment’.

At confiscation hearings brought under Britain’s Proceeds of Crime Act, Waite was ordered to repay £785,000 (€942,000) and Pollett approximately £90,000 (€108,000) and a hearing regarding Hirst is due later this month.

Of course, scams can happen anywhere, any time, and many victims are left so financially and emotionally shattered their lives are ruined.

However, sun-blessed climes like Mallorca and the Spanish costas, populated by legions of expats with nest-eggs and pensions – albeit modest ones in many cases – are a conman’s paradise.

Intoxicated by their blissful environment and the easy lilt of Mediterranean life, the unwary can easily be wooed into believing investment fairytales, offering ludicrously high returns, in Hirst’s case up to 20% per annum.

Neither is it just the commercially unsavvy who get hoodwinked.

From his unpretentious offices in downtown Palma, Mallorca’s charming capital, Scottish hustler Michael Brown rooked £36M (€43.2M) out of high net-worth individuals – including former Manchester United chairman, Martin Edwards – generously donating £2.4M of it to the UK’s Liberal Democrat party.

Like Hirst, plus a host of others who have spread their wicked web across the Balearic Islands, Brown was a consummate actor;  a highly plausible Mr. Nice Guy, ostensibly blessed with the Midas touch.

In truth, they’re an evil blight on this sublime, pine-clad archipelago.

But, because it’s a Cloud Cuckoo Land, Walter Mitty types abound here, claiming to be whoever they fancy – including nobs and nobility. And most are harmless fantasists, desperately seeking celebrity, even if it belongs to someone else.

One who strode the fine line between dreamer and hustler was George Scott, a Hemingwayesque figure, who claimed to own two boutique hostelries in Mallorca – the once-voguish Scotts Townhouse in Binisalem, the other an aparthotel mountain retreat, Scotts of Galilea.

In 2006, the flamboyant ex-wrestler and shameless self-publicist invented a stunt to cash in on the 10 studios in his hillside hideaway by raffling them off on the internet.

Charging GB£100, €150 or the equivalent in US$ for a ticket, Old George told me he needed to sell 33,000 to pay off his creditors and leave himself with a comfy retirement cushion. However, years on he’d fallen at least 20,000 short of his optimistic goal, so nixed the idea, batting away entrants demanding legitimate refunds.

He’d also promised to hold regular draws for the properties, which – in my humble opinion – he’d grossly overvalued at between €250,000 and €500,000 – but only one ever took place and that was only after considerable pressure from angry, frustrated ticket-holders.

In any event, it ended in tragi-farce for the British couple who ‘won’ their holiday dream home in the sun, because they were denied their prize…’for complicated legal reasons I’m sorting out,’ insisted the silver-tongued charmer at the time, but who somehow never manage to unravel the complexities.

HARMLESS OR HUSTLER? George Scott, the man behind the failed 'holiday-home internet raffle' - Picture: Mike Gunnill

HARMLESS OR HUSTLER? George Scott, the man behind the failed ‘holiday-home internet raffle’ – Picture: Mike Gunnill

For all his bluster about possessing financial acumen, if Old George was to be believed, his mistake was to become intoxicated with the bigger picture, losing sight of the devil in the detail; so the whole shebang became stuck in a morass of red tape.

Among oversights he admitted, not only had he neglected to obtain planning permission to carve up the Galilea hotel into individual parcels – each one requiring an escritura property deed – he failed to obtain a local licence for the raffle, though he insisted he had US, Spanish and UK permits.

Talking to Old George was akin to nailing jelly to a wall, but he was canny at attracting ‘investors/bond holders’ to his businesses, many later claiming they were fobbed off with collateral worth peanuts compared to what they were promised.

However, as I reported here in his obituary (‘Did Old George take the secret of the holiday homes missing millions to his grave?’ – 15 March, 2013), fate fatally intervened and the colourful, if flighty, entrepreneur shrugged off this mortal coil, avoiding a litany of legal actions and leaving the whereabouts of an estimated €1.3M shrouded in mystery.

Was Old George a hustler or just an egotist with an outlandish delusion that hadn’t a chance in Hades of coming true? Since he was never tried in a criminal court we’ll never know, though – wittingly or otherwise – he did a good many decent folk a deal of financial harm.

The really treacherous deceivers, however, are those who let it be known they have a knack for serious financial alchemy and – for a time – they actually deliver on their hollow promises.

Only when their Ponzi bubble inevitably pops or their ‘investment’ wheeze flops does the ‘mark’ realise they’ve been had by a ruthless shark.

It’s then – and only then –  victims wonder why they didn’t do due diligence checks on whoever claimed to make them richer than Croesus…like asking, ‘Who’s the official regulator of this scheme?’ and checking out the answer online.

The best advice is even simpler: if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s