Four fraudsters are facing jail after making millions from the misery of would-be holidaymakers across Britain.
With the help of the largest ‘bargain break’ scam of its kind in the country, they wallowed in a luxury life of plush homes, fast cars, designer clothes and real, no-expense-spared vacations.
But while they enjoyed themselves, thousands of victims were left counting an often heavy emotional and financial cost.
Honeymooners, pensioners and families with young children, who booked online or through a TV text service, had to contend with the shock of companies disappearing overnight with their hard-earned cash.
Even worse off were those who actually arrived at overseas hotels only to find they had no reservations.
London’s Southwark Crown Court heard some managed to find temporary accommodation after a desperate late night hunt with tired children and heavy luggage in tow.
Others ended up having to spend the night on beaches with their suitcases.
Take a look at our guide to spotting a scam to make sure you stay savvy when booking holidays.
One victim was John Reynolds, the former Lord Provost of Aberdeen and a leading local tourist board official, who ended up ‘twice bitten’ after booking two non-existent holidays in successive years with different companies operated by the gang.
As horror stories unfolded by the thousand, police, travel industry officials and credit card companies were left trying to pick up the pieces.
Investigators were faced with hurriedly ‘abandoned’ offices – often just before a bank holiday – and bewildered call centre staff.
By then the architects of so many nightmares has disappeared with huge sums taken in bookings and later squirreled away in accounts over here and in Cyprus, Greece and Spain.
Weeks later, new travel agencies would rise behind a trademark smokescreen of names, fresh premises, the same old promises, and yet another batch of ‘clean skin’ nominee directors, many of them conveniently based abroad.
Although police identified 26 ‘front’ operations during a 15-month police investigation, interviewed 400 witnesses and ended up with 18,000 pages of evidence, the court case centred on a more manageable five ‘vehicles for fraud’.
If you come across a scam, make sure you report it.
However, even they involved losses of up to £7 million – most eventually refunded either by card companies, the Association of British Travel Agencies – and an estimated 12,000 victims.
Police accept the total cost, both in human and financial terms, is clearly much higher.
So far court orders have frozen assets worth well into seven figures. More are expected.
In the dock were Greek Cypriots Evangelia Liogka, 40, of Montpelier Place, Knightsbridge, Christakis Philippou, 64, from Bark Place, Bayswater, central London, and British national Timothy Entwisle, 57, of Childcombe, near Bridport, Dorset.
They claimed like their long-suffering customers, they, too, were innocent dupes, but of co-defendant and self-confessed conman Peter Kemp, and two others who are now dead.
But the jury convicted Philippou and Entwisle of five counts of conspiracy to defraud between July 2003 and August 2006.
Liogka, who burst into tears as she heard the unanimous verdicts against her, was found guilty on four of the charges and cleared on one.
Judge Andrew Goymer adjourned sentencing until April 17, when Kemp, 57, of Goffs Oak, Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire – who admitted all the charges – will also be dealt with.
He said ‘lengthy’ confiscation proceedings would be held later in the year once ‘significant assets abroad’ had been tracked down.
The five London-based travel agencies featured in the trial were Ciao Travel Ltd, Onshine Ltd, Grayrise Associates Ltd, Orange Sun Ltd and Sun Orient Ltd. Three operated through Teletext adverts, the others online.
Martin Edmunds, QC, prosecuting, told the five-week trial some were set up especially for fraud, while others had begun life as legitimate operations before being taken over. In any event none ‘had any intention of providing the bulk of holidays that were booked’.
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