Luxury Villa Fraudsters Jailed for Madeira Potato Field Scam

(Bloomberg) -- Four men and a woman convicted of conning people to invest in a fraudulent luxury villa construction scheme on a potato field in the Portuguese island of Madeira were sentenced to as long as 5 1/2 years in a U.K. jail.

The group were part of a plot that took 2.8 million pounds ($3.6 million) from 175 people whom they cold-called, according to the Financial Conduct Authority, which prosecuted the case. Most of them were convicted in December, but sentencing was delayed because of other trials.

In fact, the group didn’t have a license to develop the land, which was on a slope away from the sea and had potatoes growing on it, according to the FCA.

Charanjit Sandhu, who frequently bullied potential investors, was sentenced to 5 1/2 years. Hugh Edwards and Stuart Rea, who recruited and trained brokers in the scheme, each got three years and nine months. Jeannine Lewis, who helped the ringleader launder money and hid computer hard drives containing evidence in the ceiling of premises during a police raid, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years. Ryan Parker will only serve jail time if he’s in trouble in the next 18 months.

Michael Nascimento, described by the FCA as the scheme’s mastermind, is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 14. He spent tens of thousands of pounds on tickets to Arsenal soccer club, the agency said.

“These fraudsters callously targeted investors who were often elderly and vulnerable, lying to them to get them to part with significant sums of money," FCA enforcement head Mark Steward, said in an emailed statement. "Despite efforts to conceal and destroy evidence, the FCA, in one of its largest ever investigations, was able to ensure that these criminals faced justice and ended up behind bars."

The case is a success for the financial regulator, which has been under pressure to clamp down on investment scams of this kind. Fraud has cost victims 706 million pounds in the six months through March, a decrease of 18 percent, according to police figures. Less than one in six reports of fraud result in charges, cautions or other judicial outcomes.

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