Pyramid schemes

CPLPortfolio Guidebook

In this feature l 20 million scheme l 10,000 members l nine women convicted Breaking the chain The great pyramid scandal, which resulted in thousands of people being swindled out of millions of pounds in England and Wales, has finally been brought to a close. TS Today reports on proceedings I t has taken five years and three trials, but last month finally brought to a conclusion the prosecution and conviction of nine women who fleeced thousands in a 20 million pyramid scheme operating in the south-west of England and south Wales. The so-called Give & Take scheme began in 2008, and was an unsustainable money pyramid that needed ever-increasing numbers of new members each paying 3,000 to keep it alive. It involved around 10,000 people mainly from the south-west of England and South Wales of whom the majority lost their money. The scheme was brought to a close between January and April 2009 with the arrest of committee members from the Bristol area who ran the Give & Take scheme and of its other significant promoters. Subsequently, charges were brought against 11 defendants by the then Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which has now been superseded by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Bristol Trading Standards first referred the case to the OFT in 2008. A detailed investigation followed, with the OFT working closely with enforcement partners, including the South West Scambusters team and Avon & Somerset Constabulary. Almost 300 witness statements were taken, and more than 5,000 items of material seized and examined. The prosecutions were the first brought by the OFT under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Under these rules, pyramid promotional schemes in which the money for payments is derivedprimarily from introducing or enrolling others into the scheme are automatically deemed to be unfair commercial practices. Establishing, operating and promoting such practices is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years imprisonment. The Give & Take scheme relied on existing members recruiting others to join. It was organised into a series of small pyramids of 15 people. When eight new members signed up, they were placed on the bottomrow of the pyramid and paid their 3,000 joining fee to the person at the top, who was referred to as the Bride. The Bride received a total of 23,000, with the remaining 1,000 going towards purported administration costs, and to a charity of the Brides choosing. The pyramids would then be split, with the two people below the Bride the Bridesmaids becoming the new Brides,with eight new people needed to join each pyramid. The scheme expanded exponentially this way, so that in theory atleast each member had the chance to rise to the top and net 23,000.The scheme had expanded to more than 900 pyramids by thetime it wasclosed. Participants were encouraged to invite their family, friends and colleagues to large promotional events, where the cash payouts were awarded to the Brides. The events were designed to generate excitement around the scheme, and give the impression that people would lose out if they did not join. Give & Take was promoted as being within gambling laws, and although some of the organisers sought legal advice when obtaining that advice, they did not reveal the full nature of the operation, or changes made to it. Nevertheless, the organisers continued to claim that the scheme had full legal backing. Although Give & Take was targeted at women and promoted as being open towomen only men were allowed to joinonce the numbers of new members began to dry up, as long as they used a womans name. The defendants were split into three trials at Bristol Crown Court the firsttaking place between April and July 2012, the second betweenMay and October 2013, and the third in September 2014. All reporting of the cases was prohibited until the third one had beencompleted inOctober. At the first trial, the chairman of the committee and figurehead of the scheme Laura Fox, and two other committee members, Carol Chalmers and Jennifer Smith Hayes, were convicted unanimously by ajury, and each sentenced to nine months in prison. At the second trial, a jury was unable to reach full verdicts. Before thestart of the third trial, three committee members Susan Crane, Mary Nash and Hazel Cameron pleaded guilty to the offences of promoting and operating the scheme, bringing the prosecution to a conclusion. Susan Crane and Mary Nash were sentenced to six months immediate imprisonment, and Hazel Cameron was sentenced to six months imprisonment suspended for two years. A further three defendants Sally Phillips, Rita Lomas and Jane Smith pleaded guilty before the start of their trials to promoting the scheme, and were sentenced to prison terms of three, four and fourand-a-half months respectively, suspended in each case for two years. Two defendants, Tracy Laurence and Rhalina Yuill, were acquitted. Now the CMA is pursuing the defendants criminal assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Credits Published Images: STILLFX / Shutterstock 28 October, 2014 The scheme had expanded to more than 900 pyramids by the time it was closed IN RES PONS E I welcome these convictions. Pyramid promotional schemes, such as Give & Take, are intrinsically unsustainable and doomed to collapse, resulting in significant loss of money for the vast majority. Rightly, such schemes are banned outright, and the convictions have confirmed that Give and Take was an illegal scheme. Sarah Davey, principal trading standards officer, Bristol City Council, South West Scambusters As the convictions make clear, pyramid selling schemes where money is generated primarily by recruiting new people to join in are illegal and criminal. Anyone thinking of organising or promoting such a scheme risks a criminal record and a spell in prison. The case will be a warning for consumers. The vast majority of consumers stand to lose their money from such schemes. The adage remains that if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Alex Chisholm, CMA chief executive To share this page, click on in the toolbar